Interview With Nancy Kates
What inspired you to create this documentary?
I was saddened by her death at the end of 2004 -- I felt like this important voice had been silenced. A few months after she died I got into this little dispute with my office neighbor about whether or not Susan Sontag had been a lesbian, which involved showing my colleague the huge hullabaloo in the gay press about the fact that her same-sex lovers were not mentioned in either the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times obituaries. Somewhere between my colleague?s office and walking back to my desk, I thought, ?I should make a film about Susan Sontag.?
Did you learn anything new or surprising about Susan throughout your research?
Of course I learned a lot of new things, but the thing that I dwelled on the most was that there was a slightly tragic quality about her. She really wanted to be remembered as a great fiction writer, but she wasn?t a great fiction writer because she wouldn?t write about her passions, her women. I don?t think she was really able to get inside the mind of another character -- that?s frankly what was wrong with her fiction. She did a lot of experimentation that didn?t succeed, which in some ways you have to admire. I?ll just say this -- I had a Sontag reading group and when we read two of her novels for one meeting everyone get really angry with me and threatened to quit.
Where would you recommend a Sontag novice start to approach her work?
Probably with ?Illness as Metaphor? and her book ?On Photography.? They?re not that easy to read, but they?re easier than other things. Of course it would be great if people watched the movie and went out and bought some Sontag -- but that?s only going to be a particular group of people. I hope that the film reaches people that aren?t going to go read one of her essays.
How did you decide on Patricia Clarkson as Susan?s voice?
She was my first choice, and I was really honored that she said yes. I wanted an actress who was unequivocally intelligent, had a great voice and who was really classy -- Patricia was the first person who popped in my head. I had thought about asking Susan Sarandon, who apparently was a friend of Susan Sontag, but Sarandon?s been the voice in a number of documentaries, so I thought she might be the more predictable choice. It was amazing to work with Patricia. I thought, ?Okay, if I get hit by a bus and I never finish this movie, at least I?ve had this experience of Patricia Clarkson performing essentially for me.?
Was there a challenge to depicting such a prominent figure ?warts and all??
I started out holding Sontag in high regard and then I learned too much -- like you would about anyone that was a subject of biography. The effort here was to be fair but not to put her on a pedestal. Anyone that you would subject to this kind of scrutiny would probably fall off their pedestal. We could have been a lot harder on her because she really could be very difficult, but I didn?t want to just attack her. There wouldn?t be any point in making the film if that was my intention.
My hope was that she wouldn?t just be this icon, she would be a person. We were walking several lines at time with this film. One was between people who knew a lot about her and people who knew nothing, and we tended to err towards the people who knew nothing. We couldn?t make the film for the insiders because there aren?t enough of them, but we were concerned that they might think we were being too lightweight about her work because it?s a film, not a dissertation. Another line we were trying to walk was, ?Are we being too nice to her? Too mean? What?s honest, what?s fair here??
How did you approach the matter of her unconfirmed sexuality?
That was another line. She didn?t want to be put in a box, and we were trying to be honest without putting her in a box, either. She probably would be horrified by the movie -- first of all, she didn?t really believe in biography. Also, it?s very confusing to try and understand how much she wanted to be known after her death because she sold her papers to UCLA, and they?re chock full of lamentations about this relationship or that relationship gone awry. I don?t have any way of knowing what she really wanted, but there?s people such as Alice Kaplan [French department chair at Yale University and Sontag scholar], who?s interviewed in the film, who believed that Susan did want this information to come out after her death. Whereas Sontag?s sister, Judith, told me no, Susan didn?t want anyone to know. I think she started off being in the closet because she thought it would hurt her career, but after a certain point she just got used to not being too public
You mentioned earlier that neither the New York Times nor the Los Angeles Times mentioned her same sex relationships in her obituaries.
I had a long conversation with the person who wrote the Los Angeles Times obituary who was a pretty good friend of Susan?s, and he continues to defend that decision based on her own wishes. I think the people who loved her were very protective of her in this regard, even if they didn?t agree with her apparent need to be protected.
I had an argument with someone a few years ago about whether or not the dead have a right to privacy. In making the film I decided that they don?t, really. Who is protected by that? By selling all her papers to a public institution before her death, Sontag already violated her own right to privacy. As did her son by publishing her diaries, even though he edited them.
What are you hoping audiences take away from this documentary?
This is a tough question because I don?t have a specific agenda. I hope they will think about women intellectuals, what Sontag represented, the fact that even today we don?t really have people like her. It?s hard to be a very public woman and be in opposition to anything in America, even today. I notice that women in particular feel empowered by this film because the number of smart choices for women remain more limited than we would hope. But people can take from it what they want. Some people just like the music, some people just like the imagery. We?re here for all!