[This is the first in a new series of interviews with filmmakers and home movie aficionados]
Morgan Dews, in his riveting new film Must Read After My Death, combines home movies, snapshots and dictaphone letters to riveting documentary about his grandparents’ marriage. Allis, Dews’s grandmother and the creator of the home movies and source of the audiotapes is, as one critic wrote, “a gifted, frustrated woman, entrapped by the ideology of the [1960s] – the perfect husband, the ideal marriage, the adorable children, the all-knowing psychoanalyst.” Through this layering of intensely personal documentation, we watch the unraveling of a troubled marriage and family life.
Home & Amateur: You’ve said that you had intended to make a short film from your grandmother’s home movies before you had the dictaphone tapes. Because those tapes are so central to “Must Read After My Death” what form was that original film going to take?
Morgan Dews: Long before my grandmother died, I had been living in Barcelona and had amassed quite a collection of Super8/8 projectors and other peoples films and home movies from the flea market. Then I met the SuperOcheros. Danny Perillat and Jonathan Brown were two other americans in town and they were doing a live show with 4 to 10 projectors going at the same time. It was essentially live media mixing of the highest order. The first video I ever cut was a music video for my latin break-beat band, easy, that a friend shot of one of their performances.
In pretty short order, I gave them all my projectors and films. What they were doing was just so beautiful and vital, full of energy and life. I really think it was some of the best and most fun art work anyone was doing in the nineties. It was insane.
So when my grandmother died and theses films that had been in my life since childhood came to me, I had a pretty solid idea of things you could do with the footage. Danny gave me back a projector and a splicer so I could put the two hundred 50′ reels onto twenty three 400 foot reels and catalog the footage. I spent a week in the Pyrennes splicing, viewing and putting notes into a spreadsheet.
I had the vaguest idea of combining the footage with a memoir that Allis had written in 1991 into a short film about her. But I was never very convinced about using text in the film and before I had to deal with that I found out about the audio material.
H&A: It is obviously rare for a family to have such diverse and intimate
documentation available. What role did the home movies play in the
family’s lives? Were they watched communally?
Dews: I was really the only one interested in the films. My mother and uncles had always said that all the could remember about the films was what a pain their father was, always chasing them around the house with the camera. I have my own boxes of home movies I’ve shot and it’s true that people are forever complaining about being filmed. Then sometimes they ask you why you aren’t filming and you’re there thinking, ‘but I thought you hated it?”
Bruce went so far at, a recent Thanksgiving gathering, as to suggest that filming was a generation skipping hereditary disease that I had gotten directly from Charley.
Since I was a child, I remember pulling out the projector and setting it up at my grandmother’s house. She absolutely refused to talk about those times, as did my mother and uncles. So I remember being very young, maybe eight or ten, and running them through like a detective. Then I would gingerly ask Allis about them. It’s funny to think about it, but that’s almost the same way I made the movie. Instead of asking Allis, I would be on the phone with my mother or my uncles asking them what the people were talking about in audio recordings.
H&A: How would you describe your grandmother’s approach to home movie making and what did you learn about her through her home movies?
Dews: I think both my grandparents were very excited by technology and very caught up in that modern feeling of progress. There are many many shots of trains, planes, cars, skyscrapers, world fairs etc. Allis also was very into filming flowers and gardens and Charley, her husband, and her children.
I also noticed that the films are all very presentational, very public records of how they wanted their family to be viewed. There’s a strong tendency to idealize in the family films. It almost seems like an inevitable byproduct of those saturated kodachrome emulsions.
H&A: I read in interview “My next project is called Amigos and
traces a decade of debauchery in Spain using my home movies and those
of my three best friends.” I’m curious to hear more about this. What do you find most interesting in the home movie aesthetic?
Dews: Well this project is very exciting. It’s my attempt to make a fiction film out of a largish collection of home movies. It’s how I made Must Read After My Death, but since all the main characters are dead (my grandparents) or hidden (my mother and uncles) it wasn’t necessary to change events in order to tell the truth.
What I find compelling about using home movies to construct narratives is that it pushes you into an approach much like the 20th century autobiographical novel. You’re taking material that is analogous to diaries in a way, and massaging it into a narrative arc. The more explicit truths you want to get at, the more you have to change names and details in order to protect your friends and family.
There are also ideas about authenticity. I turn off the camera when my friends start to scream or cry, so you lose direct dramatic situations. But there is an honesty about home footage or documentary. People aren’t pretending the camera isn’t there, they aren’t pretending to be someone else, they are there with you filming and to some extent with the viewer viewing.
There’s also something to be said for the long arc in home footage. My grandparents filmed for 20 years of their lives. I have been too. Things really change over that span of time that are really hard to fake.