Director Liz Garbus Explains the Complexity of Diane Schuler
This is an incredibly tragic story. What attracted you to it?
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.
She?s seems almost like the perfect mom who then does the unthinkable. How do you make sense of such paradoxical behavior?
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 hadn?t 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 life?that it?s often messy. We want answers. We want black and whites, but often times the truth lies in the gray.
It seems easy for some people to judge and say, well, it doesn?t matter what the circumstances of her life were, she was a monster, period.
What she did is monstrous, and there is no getting around that. I have made films in prisons, and Diane Schuler?if she had lived?would 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 they?re 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. It?s more complicated than that.
What do you think really happened with her?
I think there is no single answer. She was a very complicated person, who?from a very, very young age?took on an enormous amount of responsibility, and became hyper responsible. She was clearly a very, very tightly wound person; a person who didn?t talk about pain; a person who didn?t 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 couldn?t 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.
But the impulse to want to assign blame seems to persist for many people. Why do you think that is?
It?s a natural human impulse. I am quite sure if we had someone taken from us we would feel exactly the same way. People don?t understand why it happened, and they want to. And unfortunately I don?t think we?ll ever understand exactly what happened that day.
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
A couple things come to mind. First of all, people get behind the wheel?every day?and 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 it?s 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 it?s not possible. This tipping point notion: That a lot of small, terrible things can add up to something enormously bad. It?s very hard to accept. And I think that there is something sort of larger and philosophical about that that?s part of the pain of life.