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Interview with Liz Garbus

Danny and Diane at party

HBO

This is an incredibly tragic story. What attracted you to it?

LIZ GARBUS

Part of it was that nobody could understand how this woman, who by all accounts was an upstanding member of her community and a devoted mother, could get into a car and drive the wrong way on the Taconic, and ultimately cause this horrific accident. And then to find out that she had high levels of vodka and THC (which is found in marijuana) in her bloodstream. Nobody could wrap their heads around it. When you read a story like this, there is a desperate need for answers. So we wanted to explore it and leave no stone unturned in the search for those answers.

HBO

Shes seems almost like the perfect mom who then does the unthinkable. How do you make sense of such paradoxical behavior?

LIZ GARBUS

I think the question is, what were the decisions she made that day which lead up to the tragedy? The emotion of the story is overwhelming, and people find it unacceptable to not understand every detail of it. We tried to provide a look at this woman and her complexities that hadnt been seen in the media. For instance the things she had gone through in her childhood that made her almost, as some have said, a hyper perfect mother, living a life with probably a great deal of stress. But there is no single smoking gun which explains exactly what happened. And I think it teaches us something about lifethat its often messy. We want answers. We want black and whites, but often times the truth lies in the gray.

HBO

It seems easy for some people to judge and say, well, it doesnt matter what the circumstances of her life were, she was a monster, period.

LIZ GARBUS

What she did is monstrous, and there is no getting around that. I have made films in prisons, and Diane Schulerif she had livedwould be in prison. I think though that nobody is equal to their single worst action. You see a person in prison who is a murderer. I talk to those people, and sure, they did something that is monstrous, and theyre paying for it for the rest of their lives. But they also are human. They have humanity to them. They have life stories. And Diane Schuler is no different. Her life is not equal to this one worst action. Its more complicated than that.

HBO

What do you think really happened with her?

LIZ GARBUS

I think there is no single answer. She was a very complicated person, whofrom a very, very young agetook on an enormous amount of responsibility, and became hyper responsible. She was clearly a very, very tightly wound person; a person who didnt talk about pain; a person who didnt talk about things that were sad, that had happened to her; she kept a lot inside. We try to paint the profile of a person who, in a certain way, was hyper competent, took care of everything and everybody. When we view things in that context we can begin to have a fuller picture of who Diane Schuler was and what the chain of events might have been, had she felt pain. She couldnt tolerate that, and maybe it pushed her to the tipping point, so to speak, which then led to her making some very, very bad decisions.

HBO

But the impulse to want to assign blame seems to persist for many people. Why do you think that is?

LIZ GARBUS

Its a natural human impulse. I am quite sure if we had someone taken from us we would feel exactly the same way. People dont understand why it happened, and they want to. And unfortunately I dont think well ever understand exactly what happened that day.

... we want to say that person did something monstrous, therefore they are a monster. We want to say, "OK, this person is alive. They must have known. Therefore, they should pay." We want those kinds of satisfying responses in life, and sometimes its not possible.

HBO

What do you hope people will take away from the film?

LIZ GARBUS

A couple things come to mind. First of all, people get behind the wheelevery dayand think that they can manage. Whether they are extremely exhausted and they think, OK, well, I can just make it, I have enough energy just make it, and then they fall asleep at the wheel. Or if they have just had what they think is just a little bit to drink. So its a cautionary tale first for everybody who sees it, to remind us of what the impact of bad decisions about driving can be.

And on a more existential, philosophical note, I think that in life we want those answers, we want black and white, we want to say that person did something monstrous, therefore they are a monster. We want to say, OK, this person is alive. They must have known. Therefore, they should pay. We want those kinds of satisfying responses in life, and sometimes its not possible. This tipping point notion: That a lot of small, terrible things can add up to something enormously bad. Its very hard to accept. And I think that there is something sort of larger and philosophical about that thats part of the pain of life.

There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

HBO Documentary Films Summer Series