Confrontation, Ambivalence and Death: Discussing ‘One Cut, One Life’ with Filmmaker Lucia Small
GALO: Coming into that collaboration, that integration of voices, how did you navigate your role as a feminist filmmaker? Even if you were hesitant about making it about male/female voices, were there certain things you felt a responsibility to talk about? And how did you make sure to do so?
LS: I think the priority was always getting Ed’s story down first. It took some restraint to not write the stuff about, “Why don’t I get to hold the camera more than you do?” I wanted to get his story first. Then, we got lucky. We got invited to the Sundance Documentary Lab. We went out there and did this virtual lab where Ed had to stay at home and I went with Mary to the labs. We had a great response and Ed was Skyped in. It was cool and magical. But everyone, across the board, said, “Where’s your voice Lucia? Where’s your voice?” This was June of 2013. It was that far along. I said, “Mine’s so much harder because it’s so constructed. It’s these pieces that are put together, whereas Ed’s life emergency is happening right now. Jane’s emotions are happening right now. My response to them is happening [right now].” But the backstory, the relationship we had during Axe, the relationship I had to being a female working with an older male, all that stuff came much later.
It came after I returned from Sundance. We fought it out. Bless his heart — because he wasn’t feeling too good and we fought it out. It came out of a big discussion — the great scene where we have the baseball player, that [scene] came out of a discussion. Ed wanted to end the film with a scene from Diaries of his kids playing freeze tag. I said, “That’s one of the best films you’ve ever made, and you’re so lucky you got to let that scene run for four and a half minutes because you had a three and half hour film. But we can’t leave it there.”
We were constantly dialoguing about his privilege: him being a married man with children, me being a single woman with no children; him being pretty well-situated and having resources, and me struggling more to make a living. So it was a dialogue we had for 15 years. I think I was finally able to write it in the last month and a half of his life.
GALO: Where do things stand with Jane now? What does she think of the film now that it’s completed?
LS: That conversation with Jane, I thought a lot about it. It was a conversation in their marriage even before Diaries. It was a conversation that Jane and Ed had about him going off, making films and leaving her behind with the kids. She felt he got to do what he wanted to do. It’s a dialogue that’s still going on without him.
She and I had a long conversation on the phone a few weeks ago. She was distraught about how the film was coming out and how it was being shaped and the dialogue around her depiction of resistance — on again, off again resistance. I sent her the director’s statement and said, “Please read this.” We talked before she even did. We had a couple of heart to hearts, but this was one of the deeper ones I think we’ve had.
She’s still ambivalent. It’s been a struggle because I want to honor that. Of course, she’s ambivalent, her husband was dying. Of course, she was frustrated around this film. Of course, I posed a threat in her mind. All of those things I try to honor. But Ed really wanted to make this film. And he wanted to honor his kids and Jane. He wanted all of it. I have to keep reminding myself that’s what he wanted and what I signed up for. I fear being defensive about it, in a weird way, but I’m so proud of the work. I hope she appreciates it.
She hasn’t watched it. But interestingly enough, about two years ago when we had a retrospective, she turned to Ed (according to Ed) and said, “Thank you for making Diaries.” But it took her, in his mind, that long before she really understood it. I think she may never want to watch this film in its final form. She saw a couple cuts. But it’s too real. It’s too personal for her. At least that’s what she told me. I think it changes, though. Jane changes her mind a lot. So I’m hoping, I told her, I’m hoping we can sit on a panel one day and talk about it.
GALO: That would be great.
GALO: What do you make of her objection in the film that filmmaking changes reality? Are there moments you can point to in your own life where that’s true?
LS: All the time. Is Doug changing our reality?
LS: He’s making us nervous [laughs]. Even not as first person nonfiction, even just in documentary, you think about it when you come in. It’s what we thought about when we went down to New Orleans [for Axe]. Were we being carpetbaggers? Were we changing reality? Could we help their situation? What was our role? Were we there to witness and document? Or were we there to help them get out of a horrible situation?
Jane’s right, it does impact reality. I was sad she didn’t like the way it impacted reality. For me, sometimes, as I said, it helps distill reality for me — when I’m sitting behind the camera, not when I’m in front of it. It’s harder to be authentic. It’s harder to feel looser. I think her concerns are very valid. It is part of the reason I share her ambivalence, part of the reason I didn’t want to make this film. And it’s why Ed and I talked several times about putting it down. But we both had started and were in a moment. I just thought it was a really important piece to finish.
GALO: I’m thinking of this line in the film, “Death makes people play a hopeless game of rewind.” But with film that game is slightly less hopeless. You can edit. You can work with the past. How have you found, working with this film, the process had affected your experience of Ed’s death?
LS: [In] so many ways. I am so grateful to have this project. Ed would talk about, “Is it two weeks to a month [left before death] that sharpens the mind?” With film, you’re constantly doing that. You’re sharpening the moment, you’re distilling it and going back to watch it later. And then you put it up against another scene, and suddenly, it has new meaning. You put it up against two more, and it has a whole new meaning. And then you watch it with other people and you see things you never saw. Someone talks about the film with you, and suddenly you see a whole new meaning. I think it’s a true gift. I feel so grateful.
I mean, it was hard and challenging. It does hurt me that Jane is still struggling with it the way she is. But it helped me deal with a lot — Karen and Susan and Angus [Jane’s dog], who I just lost three weeks ago. It makes me so happy that Angus lives in the film. And Ed does, too. And so do Karen and Susan. Just finding that piece of Karen in this crazy film I had and her wonderful, quirky way of being, I’m just so happy I was able to watch it and re-watch it and share it with people.
GALO: What about the editing process? Did you work on the film much after Ed passed? I know it went very quickly between his death and the first premiere.
LS: We had a cut that was about two hours that we submitted to Sundance in September. Ed was going to the hospital a lot at that point, so he didn’t even see it until after I sent it off. He said, “This is it. But you need to cut 20 minutes out of it, Lucia.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “It needs to be 90 minutes.”
So I went back into the edit room, and then he got a lot sicker. So I furiously tried to cut 20 minutes out of it in 10 days, just tearing things out. And six days before he died, I went up to his room and showed it to him. We discussed that we were missing a bunch of scenes. A day later or a couple days later, they started giving him morphine. Something had happened to his spine so that he couldn’t walk anymore. He was sitting in the living room with the family all around. I was close to him and he turned to me. It was one of the last things he ever said to me: “The film has gotten simpler. And I don’t know if it’s good or bad.” Then he smiled and I knew what he wanted me to do. He wanted me to make it more complicated. So I put 12 minutes back in.
But [those] 12 minutes took a really long time because he died five days later. I went home and got very ill and was in the hospital. We didn’t get into Sundance, which I found out the morning I was in the ER. But I went back and had some friends come up to help me find pieces I had forgotten and missed. They helped me finesse my voice, those last pieces of my voiceover. It took a little while because I didn’t have Ed. And I wanted to be really sensitive to the family, and I was still working on the farm and a lot of things were changing.
They always say, “God is in the details.” The last three weeks on a film to me is all about finessing. It’s the final weaving — one frame here, one frame there. It was hard not to just start watching raw footage because I wanted to have Ed in the room.
GALO: What was the audience reception like when you first premiered it? Do you think it’ll be any different for a general audience?
LS: I don’t know. The reception has been really wonderful, but it’s a hard film to watch. A lot of people say they don’t even want to sit for a Q&A. They just want to sit with it personally. So I think general audiences might like this. I feel like it’s so different in a way than what’s out there. A lot of people don’t know Ed’s work and they don’t know Diaries. It’s actually a bookend to Diaries in many ways, but it’s very different. Like music — he would never put in music. We had a lot of fights about music. But I’m hoping… I don’t know. Part of me hopes and part of me just wishes [it] to go away. I mean, what did you think?
GALO: I would not have been down for a Q&A. I would definitely want to sit with it.
GALO: And a general audience wouldn’t have that pressure to discuss.
LS: Right. I think it’s why I created these four panels after the film. We just talked to everyone so intimately for an hour and 47 minutes. But the themes are various, so someone can talk about this in the context of his work or in the context of [the] female/male voice — [but] not me, somebody else.
And someone can use this film to talk about [issues like] end of life, quality of life, and how families work out these decisions. Ed and Jane were really articulate. They were really communicative. But part of Jane’s resistance to the film was [that] by filming [him], we were reminding her that he was sick. By filming for him, he was escaping his looming deadline. It was complicated that way. So it’s [a question of]: should I have a normal spring and summer, or should I go for this risky bone marrow transplant?
Part of the reason I was so open to doing this film was that I thought he was going to have the bone marrow transplant. I thought, ‘he’s so healthy, of course, he’ll have the transplant.’ I was the naïve one. You see, in the film, right after we tour the peony farm and he starts to say there are weird things happening to his body, I’m like, “What do you mean you’re not doing the transplant?” This is a huge topic that Ed and I were able to utilize to help process what’s going on, whereas Jane was resistant. They didn’t even want to talk about arrangements and things like that — even when you’re really articulate like Jane and Ed (when you know each other so well), you don’t want to bring up [that] conversation.
I mean, Ed had a doctor with him at every appointment he went to. He had his pal Turner, who was a doctor and could help evaluate all the complexities of the decision he was making. Luckily, Turner had an ability to distill it. His mother had used way too much medical stuff, so Turner had a wise way of looking at it, too: “If you want to have your non-medicalized life, maybe you shouldn’t have that bone marrow transplant.”
GALO: You mentioned “another spring and summer.” Seasons are very present in the way you split up the film. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
LS: We didn’t want to use that film construct. That came at the very end. We were playing with more esoteric things, and I said, “I think simplicity of time frame will help ground this film.” So when I wrote “another winter” and “another spring,” we even thought about calling the film that. It was very present in every conversation we had, because the cycles on the farm are very real. You see them in nature up close and in the beautiful cinematography that Ed did on the farm. We would go out together. You would see time from one week to the next when you filmed the same flower. It was like Ed says in the film, “Plants have life cycles. That maple tree has a typical 200 year life cycle, 100 years to grow and 100 years to die. And that maple tree was 125 years old.” That’s what it was about.
GALO: This film comes at the end of Ed’s life cycle, but it comes at a very different point for you. How do you think your collaboration with Ed will affect you moving forward?
LS: Not at all [laughs].
I have said, and Doug Block has told me not to, but I want to put this form down. I feel like I have explored this form reluctantly, three times, very intensely. And I want to do portraitures of other peoples’ lives. I want to do more classic cinéma vérité and observational cinema. And I’m really looking forward to that. My father, on the other hand, says, “When are we going to do Genius 2?” [But] I know enough to say that you imagine something and something else happens.
“One Cut, One Life” will be playing at the Ventura Film Society in Ventura, CA on August 19 as well as at the Dragonfly Cinema in Port Orchard, WA from August 21 to August 25.