EXCLUSIVE: Grey Gardens Director Michael Sucsy on How Drew Barrymore Won Him Over
Admit it: when you heard that Drew Barrymore was being cast as Little Edie Beale in HBO's Grey Gardens (based on the story of Jackie O's eccentric cousins that was immortalized by a 1975 Maysles Bros. documentary of the same name), you were a bit skeptical that she could pull it off. It's OK--so was writer/director Michael Sucsy. He talked to Movieline about how the project got started and what Barrymore (who went on to give a knockout performance) did that finally impressed him.
I know it's a formative experience in every gay man's life when he watches the Grey Gardens documentary for the first time. What was it like for you?
I wasn't a fan before I started working on it, actually. I'd seen the house and I knew the whole outline of the story before I'd seen the documentary. And one day I borrowed the DVD from somebody and watched it and just sat up in the end and went "There's a movie," a bigger, narrative movie that explains how this all happened. Then, actually, I watched it again and I just wrote out all these questions that I had like, "Who is this person?" and "How come they don't have any money?" and "Did they get divorced?" and all this stuff and that became the basis for my research.
You'd been to Grey Gardens itself before you saw the documentary?
My family had a house on Long Island. We were out there riding bikes in East Hampton once and my ex-boyfriend pointed out the house on the way to the beach and said, "That's the house where these filmmakers filmed Jackie's crazy cousins. With all the cats or something like that." And I was like, "Oh great. Let's go to the beach." That was about six or seven years before I first started on the project.
We've never seen Drew do a voice like this, and she nails it. Did you have any concerns beforehand about whether she'd be able to do this?
Yeah, totally. I mean, the truth is that Lucy, one of the producers, had mentioned Drew's name and I was like, "Nah, she's not right." And then about two or three months later, her name came up again and they said her agents are pushing her and they'd sent her the script, and I was like, "She's not right. Why would they send her the script?" And they said, "Don't worry about it, she gets tons of scripts, she probably wont read it." And then literally in 24 hours they were like, "She's read it. She's coming in from New York and she wants to meet you," and I was like, "She's not right!" and they were like, "Well, do you not want to meet with her? Do you want to cancel the meeting?" And I said, "I'll meet with her."
How'd it go?
It was me and Lucy, and we met Drew and she walked in just looking elegant and so beautiful. In the last couple years, Drew has emerged as this gorgeous butterfly on the red carpet, but until then I had thought of her in sweatpants. I don't know, I just didn't really see her that way -- and Edie was a model in her earlier years, so it was important. Of course, what Drew calls her own "valley girl accent," and the fact that she's a huge star but she isn't known for drama, per se...all of those were concerns. And a couple of things happened in the meeting. One is that she articulated all those concerns and she said "I have a valley girl accent and I haven't done this kind of movie before," so I was like, "Wow, she's really..."
Self-aware! If it had to be "the thing we can't talk about," it just wouldn't have worked for me. So, boom, she sat down and just rattled off what all of my concerns were, which didn't solve those concerns but it made me feel like, "OK, well, we can tackle them." And the big turning point in the meeting was that she had a big notebook with all her of research and I thought immediately, "Oh great, some intern at Flower Films printed out hundreds of pages on the internet of everything they could find on Edie Beale." Which is probably exactly what happened, but she opened it up and her handwriting was on every single page. Things were circled and underlined, the script was all annotated, and she'd only had it for 48 hours. First of all, she totally understood the character. which was the main point. But I also realized she was going to work really hard, she had super-intelligent questions and really keen insights, and I knew from just how she approached this in only two days what the extension of that would be.
Did her star power help get it made?
I knew that this was not going to be an easy project to get up--I mean, it's not a big superhero movie. I needed someone who wouldn't fall out in, like, two or three weeks. I needed to know that someone was dedicated, and I could tell that she would be. She walked away and I turned to Lucy and I said "We just found our Little Edie." I mean, I was blown away. So maybe initially, I didn't want Drew, but after that meeting I couldn't imagine it any other way. I mean, the more we got involved in it, I worried that after, like, a year and a half of development, what would happen if we lost her or she changed her mind about the project? My God. I was scared that that would happen.
Jessica Lange had interest in tackling the story of the Beales even before you approached her, right?
Yeah. Now, Little Edie was 56 in the documentary, and I think Jessica expected that she'd be doing Little Edie, not knowing that we'd be doing this film that would be going from 40 to 80 for Big Edie's character. But we met and I clarified that's what we were talking about. And I also said to them both, "You're going to look beautiful in parts of this movie, but you're also going to look like hell in other parts and I just want to make sure you're OK with that." And Jessica was kind of like, "Yeah. Yeah, I came to terms with that when I considered signing onto this." And that was huge because both of them checked their vanity at the door. So there were never any days where they said "Oh, I look too old," or "I look too ugly." Usually, it was the other way: "Make me look fatter" or "Make me look older," which is what you need to pull this kind of thing off.
Didn't the Maysles' new supplemental documentary, The Beales of Grey Gardens, come out while you were working on this? Did that provide you with any new inspiration or insight?
I found out they were having somebody go through the old footage to catalogue it and do some research and lo and behold, they made a second movie from it. So to me, it was already something I wanted to see. At one point, my cowriter Patricia Rozema and I went up to Al [Maysles's] offices and saw some of the footage that didn't even make The Beales of Grey Gardens.
There's this one scene where Gail Sheehy is there, who wrote the original article in New York magazine. She was writing a different article and she was apparently a neighbor of theirs or rented a house down the street and they became friendly, I guess. And Gail's article was on artificial insemination, which in the 70's was a brand new thing, and Little Edie starts talking about test tube babies and how you don't even need a man and how great that is. And her mother's so offended! She says, "Ugh! God, can we talk about something else? ANYTHING? Have you seen Lois's false teeth? They're so beautiful, they're like stars from heaven!" And Patricia and I are just watching with the headphones on and I think I literally fell off the chair laughing. I mean, it was just so funny. It's endless how much footage there is.
Some people have accused the Maysles of taking advantage of both women.
The exploitation aspect of it became more obvious to me when I first saw the documentary with a group of people at a LACMA screening. We address it very briefly in the movie, where Little Edie says, "This is my chance to re-launch my career!" I think she saw it as a Bette Davis movie starring Edie Beale. I don't think she distinguished between what we'd call a narrative Hollywood picture and what we'd call a documentary. For her it was a movie. She'd had had an offer from Hollywood producers to do a movie about the Beales but they wanted Julie Christie to play Little Edie and she didn't want that. She wanted to be in it. So the idea that these other filmmakers, the Maysles, were coming back and they wanted her to be in it....it was like, "Wow, this is an opportunity." So, it's not exploitation. I mean, everyone is always using everybody for something to forward their agenda, I suppose, but if people are getting mutually satisfied, is that exploitative? I don't know. It's a very reasonable discussion to be had, but I do think the Beales were complicit in a good way about this whole thing and I think they're both born performers. And what's a performer without an audience?
To mount a historical drama with two actresses is not necessarily an easy sell. Is it validating to you to see all the buzz and advertising?
You know, there are people even today saying, "Oh wow. This looks really great. Too bad it's not getting a theatrical release," but I don't think people understand how many more people watch TV than go to the movies. Even a very successful movie, in eyeballs as opposed to dollars, isn't that many people watching. And any given television show or movie that airs on HBO gets millions more eyeballs. That was the point: to share this story with the biggest number of people and to expand on the experience you can get from the documentary by going into their pasts. And frankly, for non-superhero movies, studios can't afford to do this kind of promotion and drive people to see it the way that HBO can. So I'm thrilled. Just driving around this weekend, every time I turned a corner there was another bus stop or another building that had a skyscraper-sized Grey Gardens poster. I was like, "Holy shit! This is amazing!"