The world first discovered "Big" and "Little" Edie Beale through the Maysles Brothers' landmark 1975 documentary. Their story was later turned into a Broadway musical, and now you've created a movie version about the Grey Gardens story. How did you get started on this project, and what did you hope to bring to the story that was new?
I knew about the Beales and their home, Grey Gardens, because I spent part of my childhood in Long Island, and it's part of the lore out there. In 2003, about a year after Little Edie died, I finally saw the documentary on DVD for the first time. When I got to the very end, I just sat up and I thought, "My gosh, there's a movie here, a bigger movie, one that explores how they got there and why."
So the next morning I watched it all over again - this time with a yellow legal pad - and just began writing down all these questions that came up.
I felt I could add value to the [documentary] experience by expanding the story. Those questions formed the basis for my research, which I did a ton of - conducting first-hand interviews with friends and family, pouring through loads of archived newspaper articles on microfilm, sifting through transcripts of interviews Edie had done over the years, and - the best of all - carefully reading all of Little Edie's never-before-seen private letters, poetry, and journals.
So you weren't a "fan" when you started out on this project?
No, but through that process of uncovering their story I became one.
Despite all the adversity that surrounded them, these women were strong and were confident in who they were, true to themselves.
Since the documentary first came out, Big and Little Edie have become icons for many. Where does that enduring appeal come from?
Despite all the adversity that surrounded them, these women were strong and were confident in who they were, true to themselves. We all go through a journey of trying to find our identity and our place in this world - it's a universal experience, in my opinion. As messed up as their circumstances may have been, the Edies had a home and they had each other. Little Edie wrote in her 1936-37 journal, "To love is to nourish with hope...we look for nourishment and our fulfillment in others; we live for another who is living for us. And in this dual reciprocity existence is carried on. Life cannot be lived alone - each must breathe hope into another." I think we all want that in our lives, that sense of belonging.
The relationship between Big and Little Edie is extremely complicated, and there are many questions about their life together that remain unanswered. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. Real life is complex and looking back everyone has their own view of events - what happened, when things may have gone awry, and why, how life could be different now. This was true for Big Edie and Little Edie. They had different takes on what happened. I wanted to present enough evidence so that both of their perspectives were credible.
You said you didn't want to simply recreate the documentary, that you sought to "add value" to the experience, so how did you use the documentary in presenting their story?
The central question I wanted to explore was, "How did they get there?" This riches to rags story didn't happen overnight - it occurred over some forty years, and my original draft of the script covered that whole period in a linear fashion, moving straight through from the mid 1930s to the late 1970s. But that script was very expensive to produce and needed some focusing. When we tried to get down to just the essence of what we needed to tell the story, we found we would have had to skip time - decades in most cases. And one of the ways I thought we could do that would be to use the documentary as a vehicle to frame the movie and to be able to jump back and forth in time without feeling lost.
How do you think these two women, who came from such high society beginnings, could end up living the way they did?
We called it their "slow slide." The Edies were extremely intelligent, very well educated, but not in practical ways. They grew up in a world where they were taught to draw up a menu, not cook. So when you no longer have servants to prepare the meals, well... I mean they still "ate" but the certainly didn't "dine" - not the way they used to. And they certainly didn't have handyman skills, so when problems developed around the house, they didn't know how to fix them. But it's not like they didn't notice what was happening; I just don't think they realized it would ever get as bad as it did --- again, it was a "slow slide" - there wasn't one big incident, like a huge fire or a hurricane. It was really a series of small things that contributed to their downward spiral - a loose shingle that lets in rain that rots the wall and deteriorates the plaster. Eventually that leads to a hole and so on.
Of course, this notion of the "slow slide" applies to their psyches, as well. It was a gradual drift into the state we see them in the documentary, and as much as Big Edie is thought of as something of a rebel she was actually more conventional than Little Edie. She married, had children, ran a household. Sure, she just liked to sing, thumb her nose at the "rules," and was a bit of a free spirit, but it was Little Edie who really rejected the conventions thrust upon her. Edie held onto her dreams of being an actress and a dancer and never committed to a man. She never married. When her "career" didn't pan out, she had to come home to live with her mother. Things didn't work out for either of them the way they intended., but they made the best of it, I think.
I hope the Beales' story will be expanded to new audiences, and these two incredible women will continue to inspire and touch many more people.
Are you excited to see the film finally premiering on HBO?
It's incredibly satisfying. This project started out six years ago with me in my apartment sitting with a yellow legal pad, watching a DVD of the documentary. And to be able to share it with people - well, I'm thrilled. The entire experience has been beyond rewarding. Through this film, I hope the Beales' story will be expanded to new audiences, and these two incredible women will continue to inspire and touch many more people the way they have for decades. And being part of that is a reward in and of itself.