BY BRUCE DENNILL
Bronwyn Berry is one of the producers for Love, Gilda, a documentary about writer, actress, comedian and original Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner. The film is enjoying huge success on the festival circuit, with Magnolia Pictures recently acquiring the North American rights.
As a producer, what makes you buy into this type of project – niche documentary, low-key presentation – and more specifically into Gilda Radner’s story? It’s not exactly in step with your previous work on TV…
My body of work doesn’t really fit into a single genre or subject matter – I’ve produced docu-series, children’s TV, documentaries, scripted films, and so the list goes on. These shows have one thing in common – great stories and compelling characters. And that’s the connection to Love Gilda – Gilda Radner ‘had a great life’ (as she writes in her obit), and everyone loves her, even people who had never met her. She inspired many female comedians, including Amy Poehler and Melissa McCarthy (both of whom appear in the film). When Lisa D’Apolito, the filmmaker, pitched her idea for the film and told me about her unprecedented access to Gilda’s never-seen-before archive, I was intrigued. I immediately read Gilda’s autobiography, It’s Always Something and knew this was a project I wanted to get involved in.
Was it, for you, an opportunity to celebrate an individual or more of a channel through which to better understand the genesis of a cultural phenomenon – the type of comedy that developed via National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live?
Definitely the opportunity to celebrate an individual. It’s not often that one gets the chance to gain insight into someone’s inner life and thoughts, especially a comedic genius and wonderful human being like Gilda, through the personal journals she kept over the years and the audio tapes she recorded in preparation for writing her autobiography. I’m more interested in Gilda as a trailblazer in comedy and as a funny, generous human being than the cultural phenomenon of SNL, although that’s been a pretty interesting journey too. We wanted to keep the film personal and intimate. We never wanted it to be an overview of National Lampoon and SNL- there are other films that do that.
The response on release has been good – Tribeca Film Festival, Hot Docs and a host of other festivals – but how was the support during the making of the film?
Like most projects, this one began without much support. Lisa was producing pro bono videos for Gilda’s Club (the cancer support club that Gene Wilder set up for Gilda after she died) and realised there was a film about Gilda that needed to be made. She reached out to Gilda’s brother, Michael Radner, and over the course of a year gained his trust and finally an interview. Then she started meeting Gilda’s close friends and interviewing them. This stage of the production was self-funded. It was not until she gained access to Gilda’s personal archives that she realised she had a unique angle for the film – telling the story from Gilda’s point of view and in her own voice. That’s when she launched an Indie-Gogo campaign and started editing. We also started pitching the film to broadcasters who weren’t that interested because there was no-one famous attached; no celebs or well-known directors and producers. Lisa attempted to get interviews with celebrities who had known Gilda and worked with her on SNL and those who had never met her but been inspired by her, but she was turned down – ‘who else is doing it?’ Finally, Amy Poehler agreed to be interviewed and then suddenly, everyone wanted to be involved – including Melissa McCarthy, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolf and others. Lisa went to Hot Docs in 2017 with a sizzle reel and came back with an offer from CNN Films. And some serious deadlines, one of them being submitting to the Tribeca Film Festival.
Using Gilda’s own diaries and notes as a script: was there a long decision-making process around that (“Let’s check that there’s a good arc”; “What if there’s a long, boring period?” etc) or was that the foundation of the project from the beginning?
The chronological bio doc of Gilda’s life had already been made. The film is told from Gilda’s point of view, in her voice. If she didn’t say something or write about it in her journals, it wasn’t going into the script. We started with a string out of her audio tapes (many were damaged beyond repair) and then added interviews and performances to fill out the narrative. We skipped over events (her stage roles such as Lunch Hour) and didn’t spend too much time on her feature roles (during the ‘Gene’ period of her life – her relationship with him was far more interesting). We had a lot of of materials from the period when she had cancer and had to be careful about tone and dwelling on this part of her life and possibly losing the attention of a younger, unsympathetic audience. It was more about how she overcame of the obstacle of cancer, got to the stage where she could tell jokes about it (which was not a thing back then) and inspired others living with cancer.
It’s difficult to write the sort of pathos that occurs naturally in a life like Gilda’s, with the high-flying celebrity status alongside the personal struggles. Was the balance of the final film completely natural, or were there concerns about revealing issues that depicted Gilda in a less sympathetic light (her anorexia, for instance, is very compassionately dealt with)?
We took pains not to sensationalise her story. Michael Radner trusted Lisa with Gilda’s legacy. He wasn’t involved in the edit. He trusted her to tell the story with integrity and we couldn’t let him down. When you have access to someone’s journals – and who writes in a journal when they’re feeling content and at peace with life? – it is really tempting to go for the salacious tidbits that would guarantee reviews and ratings. But we didn’t want to do this; it wouldn’t do justice to Gilda’s legacy. At the same time, we didn’t want to be hagiographic. Regarding, Gilda’s eating disorder – it wasn’t something that was commonly known and talked about. If it had happened now, it would be much discussed in social media. We constructed the narrative from Gilda’s journals, using her ‘inner voice’ to tell the story of her struggle with body image, with some help from her close girlfriends.
Gilda comes across as naïve and incredibly trusting. In today’s celebrity scene, which often feels so much more ruthless and fast-moving – and not necessarily cognisant of talent – do you think she would have had the impact she did then?
I think so – because she was so smart and talented, because she was a real, vulnerable person who cared about others, and because her unique brand of comedy is timeless. In her performances, she absolutely did not care how she looked or how she came across. There was such a wildness about her, like she had no barriers. My favourite character of hers is Judy Miller, a hyperactive schoolgirl all by herself in her small bedroom and so bored! Her performances are so physical; she uses every part of her body and throws herself the studio with such abandon. I think it took a lot of guts to do that and she didn’t take herself too seriously. And what an amazing gift. Not only was she funny and talented, but she brought such joy to people. Melissa McCarthy spoke of the ‘Gilda crazy barometer’ in her interview. “It’s a nice template to check if someone’s nuts. Just ask them if they like Gilda. The one in eight billion that says, ‘Oh, I don’t care for her’ – everyone would stop and go, oh so that person’s crazy.”
What is next for the film – festivals, release in new territories, Netflix options?
It has recently been acquired by Magnolia Pictures and will have a theatrical release later in the year. We’re hoping for an on-demand deal. Then it goes on CNN in January 2019. It’s currently on the festival circuit – after Hot Docs, it was at Montclair, then Edmonton in Canada, and we’re also going to Seattle, Berkshires, Mendocino, Mammoth, AFI, and Nantucket, which is probably enough travelling for the time being.
When – and how – will South African audiences be able to see it?
On a Video On Demand platform. Stayed tuned!
For more information or to buy tickets to festival performances in the US, go to lovegilda.com.