Many years ago, when I set out to become a proverbial “big-time” movie director, the last thing I expected was that my greatest filmmaking success would result from an intensely personal
documentary about my relatively normal family.
51 BIRCH STREET (released in 2006), was a film I never intended to make. I mean, who in their right mind would actually plan to make a documentary about their parents’ unhappy marriage? Certainly not me. That is, until a series of surprises and discoveries in the wake of my mother’s unexpected death caused me to reevaluate every assumption I had about my family. In the process, I realized I had accidentally tapped into a story that could (and thankfully did) resonate with audiences throughout the world.
In stark contrast to 51 BIRCH STREET, if I didn’t exactly plan to make THE KIDS GROW UP, it’s a film that’s been percolating in the back recesses of my brain for a considerable time. My daughter Lucy has always had a natural camera presence, and I couldn’t help but think there was a fascinating documentary to be made about parenting over the long haul from a father’s perspective. The only problem was that I could never quite get a handle on what form such a film might take. It never seemed enough to simply see a little girl grow up on camera.
As the years (and other film projects) flew by, and many hours of footage accumulated, it continued to feel like a subject in search of a story. And that was fine by me. While a film might never come to pass, I was perfectly happy to have captured an ongoing chronicle of my only child, and of our close and loving relationship, if only for posterity.
It was only when Lucy turned 17, and it suddenly hit me that only one year remained before she
would leave the nest for college, that I fully grasped the immediacy of the situation. Envisioning the ending, the emotion-packed moment of goodbye that parenthood inevitably leads to, gave a very clear structure to THE KIDS GROW UP. And it provided the tone, as well. It was no longer just a humorous, if heartfelt, look at a father-daughter relationship playing out through my camera over time. Lurking underneath was a serious story about a baby boomer parent struggling with aging and loss, and learning how to let go.
It’s exceedingly difficult to make personal documentaries, and THE KIDS GROW UP was, if anything, even more daunting than 51 BIRCH STREET. As the film makes clear, Lucy had a healthy amount of ambivalence about being filmed at certain moments. My rule of thumb was to be as sensitive to her feelings as possible, begin shooting only when she was okay with it and be prepared to turn the camera off whenever she told me to. Still, Lucy is emotionally vulnerable in several scenes and, when it comes to your child, your parental instinct is to protect. Lucy was the first to see different cuts of the film and was given multiple opportunities to “pull the plug” on it if she felt it would adversely impact her life. The only way I could make THE KIDS GROW UP was to be a father first and filmmaker second, although, as the film shows, I certainly tried my best to be both at the same time.
My wife Marjorie is extremely exposed in the film, as well, and not just because the looming empty nest cast a degree of anxiety over our marriage. She is also shown, and on one occasion briefly interviewed, in the midst of a serious depressive episode that at times left her unable to get out of bed. Even with her permission, I wrestled internally for two months before I was able to point a camera in her direction in that condition.
Marjorie, who has always been open about her history of depression, especially appreciates that the film will help de-stigmatize the subject by depicting someone who suffers a depressive episode and then recovers without making a big fuss about it.
And so I’ve made another extremely personal film about my family, one that I hope will stand alone from 51 BIRCH STREET and, at the same time, work as a companion piece. Having produced a number of personal documentaries, as well as having made my own (and in the middle of making yet another), I fully understand the pitfalls involved. However, the more I’ve travelled with these films around the world, the more I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing more powerful or affecting than authentically sharing who we are as human beings with one another. I’m proud and grateful that my wife and daughter feel the same way, and that they trusted I would present their lives and experiences on film in an honest and, hopefully, entertaining way.
Finally, one regrettable aspect of making first-person docs is that people often come away from them with the misconception that I create them by myself. Happily, I had a number of extraordinarily talented collaborators who made the film infinitely better and the process infinitely more enjoyable. To composer H. Scott Salinas, associate producer Gabriel Sedgwick, editor Maeve O’Boyle and, particularly, my producing partner Lori Cheatle, I give my heartfelt thanks and everlasting appreciation.