It is a hot summer day in 2003. An aspiring writer named Michelle takes her elder artist friend Irene to Brighton Beach. For kicks, Michelle brings along a never-before-used Hi8 camera her father has just given her. Sitting at a café table, Michelle turns the camera on. “Irene,” Michelle asks, “does the camera make you uncomfortable?” Irene’s gaunt face lights up. “Don’t you understand?” she asks, turning towards the lens and fluttering her eyelashes. “The camera to me is my beloved, the one who wants me always, and I give everything I have … to the camera.” She gives a coquettish smile, and turns back to her French fries.
The Michelle in this story is film director Michelle Memran, and the Irene is legendary Cuban-American dramatist María Irene Fornés: writer of over forty plays, winner of nine Obie Awards, nominee for a Pulitzer Prize, founding director of INTAR’s Hispanic Playwrights in Residence Lab, and teacher and mentor to thousands, including practically every playwright working today. That day at Brighton Beach began a collaboration between Michelle and Irene that has resulted in an extraordinary documentary film. The Rest I Make Up (after a lyric from Irene’s play Promenade: “I know everything. Half of it I really know, the rest I make up…”) is a haunting, joyful, intimate portrait of art and friendship and the persistence of both in the face of advancing dementia, and a passionate assertion in the absolute continuation of creativity even as one’s ability to create is compromised.
The film currently exists as an eighty minute rough cut, which I’ve been lucky enough to see many times as I’ve accompanied Michelle to small fundraiser screenings around the country. These days, Irene is living at Amsterdam Nursing Home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and Michelle is working 24/7 to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds needed to finish the film and release it to festivals and the world at large. I recently got her to take a break long enough to talk to me about her voyage thus far and what Irene has taught her about the creative process:
Katie Pearl (Rail): You first met Irene when you interviewed her for an article about playwrights and critics for American Theatre magazine.
Michelle Memran: Right. She was my favorite playwright, and I was gutsy enough to just look her up in the phone book and ask her to meet. I was shocked when she said yes. We met on the corner of Waverly and 6th, went to Baluchi’s Indian Restaurant, had a six-hour lunch and talked about everything except critics and writers. She had no use for critics, no interest in them at all.
Rail: And then you became friends?
Memran: I loved hanging out with her. I would go by on my lunch hours and bring her turkey sandwiches from the deli downstairs. She was rarely leaving the house, she wasn’t writing and didn’t know why; she wasn’t troubled or bothered by that, in that it got in the way of her enjoying her day, but she basically just stayed inside all the time—unless she had friends coming to pick her up and take her to things. And I became one of them. And the more time we spent together, the more I realized that her not writing was having a profound effect on her.
Rail: On her spirit?
Memran: Yes. You could just tell that she had all this energy in terms of her observations, the way she noticed everything in the street, all these things that now I know are very Irene, very much a part of her writing process—but at the time I experienced it just as a heightened sense of being in the moment, of noticing everything—
Rail: Because those things she noticed were the things that used to be channeled into her writing.
Memran: Right. And she didn’t have that channel anymore. And so she was channeling all that into her speech. But at first I wasn’t documenting it, I wasn’t writing it down. I would say, “Oh, that’s brilliant,” but it never occurred to me that I should record it.
Rail: So the film didn’t start with you being like, “Aha! I know what we should do!”
Memran: Definitely not. I don’t know what inspired me to bring that Hi8 camera that day.
Rail: But once you did?
Memran: Once I did, I realized that the camera could become a viable creative outlet for her. For both of us. We called it “writing for the camera.” I would say, “The lens is your pen.” And she would just go. And I would follow. But I never considered myself a filmmaker. I just figured it out as I went along.
Rail: Which is perfect, because she never went to school to be a playwright, either. Which is probably one reason why her plays are each so idiosyncratic and amazing: she never tried to fit herself into a tested and accepted form.
Memran: No. In the film she talks about writing as a process of exploring without a map. You discover the whole way. That’s definitely true for this process. You stay present, you pay attention.
Rail: There is a card, a quote, that shows up on a bulletin board at the end of the film—something you wrote down that Irene said to you during your time together: “Definition of love is paying deep attention.” You spent a long time paying this kind of deep attention to Irene. But I’ve heard you say that the film was not a one-way street—it wasn’t just you doing this thing for Irene, she was paying deep attention to you as well.
Memran: It was a reciprocal relationship. We happened to find each other in a moment where, not only was Irene feeling unseen, and alone, but I was also at a point in my life where I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was a writer who wasn’t really writing, I was newly out of the closet, I was just trying to find my way, looking to create my own family in New York. Irene was the beginning of that for me. We needed each other. There was always a curiosity as to what I was thinking or feeling, what I was going to be doing with my life. It wasn’t just the Irene show.
Rail: Although part of the Irene show I think is that kind of curiosity about others. That is her template for being in the world: being curious and interested, finding inspiration outside of yourself. So when there is someone in front of you, that becomes your subject—if only temporarily. One thing that comes to light in the film is that Irene wasn’t writing due to an undiagnosed dementia.
Memran: Yes. Probably Alzheimer’s disease.
Rail: And yet I love that it’s not a film about an “Aging Artist with Dementia;” it’s a film about Irene, and she happens to be experiencing dementia.
Memran: This great book, Dementia Reconsidered, talks about “Personhood” and about changing our perspective from thinking of “person” with a lowercase “p” having “Dementia” with a capital “D,” to “Person” with an uppercase “P” who experiences “dementia” with a lowercase “d.” So I just changed “Person” to “Playwright.” One of the most incredible things to me about Irene is the way her Personhood is connected to her Playwriting.
Rail: One of the most difficult points in the movie, emotionally, is when you are with Irene at her sister’s in Miami and you tell her that the doctors think she should stay in Miami so she can be looked after by family. You are walking in a marina, near her sister’s apartment, and Irene looks around and challenges you—arguing that it’s clear no theater happens there and that it would be impossible to write plays in Miami. She keeps saying, “I am a playwright. It’s my life. It’s my work…” Even though she wasn’t writing plays, even when you remind she hadn’t written a play in five years, she still knows who she is: a playwright.
Memran: That was a hard scene for me to include. I thought a lot about how present her illness would be in the film.
Rail: How did you decide?
Memran: I worked with my editor, Melissa Neidich, for a whole year trying to figure it out. I had hundreds of hours of raw footage to comb through, and there were so many stories to tell. We couldn’t get the film to gel, and I finally had this “aha” moment when I realized that I had been trying to keep me out of it—but our relationship is actually the arc that everything else hangs off of. In the film, it has to have equal weight to Irene’s life and work, and to the Alzheimer’s. Melissa took this idea and came out with what would essentially be the rough cut we have now: a braiding together of these three strands. Added to that was the challenge that there was just a lot of vérité footage. I shot it like a video diary. It was a totally unprofessional endeavor.
Rail: As Irene says in the film: “I do not trust professionals!”
Memran: It took an incredible amount of patience and skill on Melissa’s part to cut together that footage into scenes. I still don’t know how she did that.
Rail: It’s an astonishing final product. At the end of every screening I’ve been to, there is the comment “Your editor, how did she do that, that’s amazing!”
Memran: The other “aha” moment we had was that the structure of the film needed to be dictated almost entirely by Irene. Which meant we had to move associatively—follow Irene’s thoughts and memories, go in tangential directions and come back. There was no planning ahead. Any time we wanted to add anything foreign, put in a “good idea,” it didn’t work; we really had to let her lead. And so it’s a structure that you’re either going to love or you’re going to hate. It’s unlike any film you’ve ever seen.
Rail: Maybe this is partly because—similar to the way dementia shows up in the film with a small “d”—the same thing can be said about the camera: in this film, the camera is there with a little “c.” The film is not about making a film; the film is about a friendship and a relationship that you guys have, and a camera happens to be there with you. There’s never a sense of falseness, of “putting on” for the camera. She’s just talking to you, to Michelle, and often that means she’s having a conversation directly into the camera, which means my experience in the audience is that she is just talking to me. It’s very unfiltered and spontaneous. It’s incredibly intimate.
Memran: When we were together, whatever was happening in the moment was exciting to Irene, and exciting to me, and so that’s what we talked about and that’s what the camera captured. If it wasn’t happening in the moment, it just didn’t matter. I think this was true for Irene even before the Alzheimer’s, but it was even more true after. She is the most present person I know. Which is why the film feels so present.
Rail: You spent many years being very close to a woman that many regard as the top goddess of teaching the creative process. If you had to name one thing you learned from her, or still carry with you, something that led you as you made the film, what would that be?
Memran: You know, in the middle of the filming process I went back to film school thinking I need to learn how to make a movie in order to make the movie. I only spent a semester there, but that whole semester Irene kept telling me: “Why go to school? There’s no need to go to school to make a movie. You’re already doing it.” For Irene, the idea that you need someone else to tell you how, or what to make—that’s a waste of time. Irene would say: You need to start with yourself and just go from there. And don’t stop.
For Michelle’s Kickstarter campaign, please visit http://bit.ly/FornesFilm.