Dictaphone Diaries : an interview with the director of Must Read After My Death

Morgan Dews’ Must Read After My Death is a startling, deeply intimate look into the domestic life of the filmmaker’s grandmother, Allis. Made up entirely of home movies and recordings that Allis documented (privately, in therapy sessions, or trans-Atlantic with her husband Charley), the film is at times heartwarming, but more so horrifying, as Allis struggles against the stifling systemic and familial abuse as a 1960s housewife. The personal documentation and voiceovers make the experience of watching a family unravel all the more affecting.

The film is already receiving film festival prizes and rave reviews (the Village Voice said it “makes Revolutionary Road look like a tea party”) from around the world. Morgan took the time to answer some of my questions about the movie and filmmaking process.

I’ve read that you were close to your grandmother, and that the stories revealed in the footage were completely unknown to you beforehand. What was your initial reaction to the material? Have you viewed your relationship with your grandmother differently since production on the film began?

I was really fortunate to have a close friendship with my grandmother Allis and the kind of love and complicity that you can sometimes have between grandparents and their grandchildren. There is all the love of a parent, but they don’t have the same responsibility that your parents do.

The material came out in dribs and drabs. First my uncle Bruce found and made copies of the dictaphone records and sent them out to the whole family. That was really touching and amazing because these were very frank and loving audio letters that they had sent back and forth while Charley, my grandfather, was away on business.

Allis’ “Must Read After My Death” admonition really brings into focus that she wasn’t at all happy with the way her marriage to Charley unraveled, and that she really wanted to address that with her children. But the way that with me and Allis was that she absolutely refused to discuss it with me. I remember once at her house. I was about 10 and there were several very glamorous formal portrait photos of this man on the wall. I asked her who it was, and she literally would not answer me.

One of the things I inherited from Allis is an outrageous stubbornness. When she refused to answer, I knew I was onto something, so I kept right on repeating my question, “Who is in these photos.” Finally she gave in and said, “That’s Charley. He was your grandfather,” and that was about it. Allis never got tired of telling stories about her first husband, their child who died in Paris, their years in Europe, her parents - but Charley was off limits.

The film is really about Allis having the last word on everything that went awry in her marriage to Charley. She is the woman who is taking us into her confidence and telling the story, she is the protagonist. But you have to remember that this is her story, and there’s room to question her reliability in all this.

Making the film really filled in a whole third of her life that had been in darkness for me. It was a little shocking to meet that younger Allis, but it was entirely with the woman I knew so well. What was most surprising for me was to hear Charley’s voice for the very first time. It doesn’t come out so strongly in the film because of all the pressure Allis is under and bad advice she’s getting, but I came to really feel for Charley and what he was going though too.

The later material, the reel to reel tapes Allis recorded in the car for her shrink, the fights the family recorded, the confessions are all heartbreaking. They just show you how with the help of a bevy of brand new psychological professionals they became obsessed with a few problems and didn’t stop picking at them until their family had been completely devastated. You really feel for them listening to all the material.

What was the editing process like? How did you choose which footage would make the film? Is there any footage you had to leave out that you would have liked to included? Did you find the editing process to be an incredibly personal one?

The editing process was very strange. I started working with the 8mm movies before I ever heard of any of the audio material. When Allis died in 2001 at the age of 89, quite pleased with herself for having made it to the new millennium, (start of ‘01 NOT ‘00), I got all the films. Originally I was planning to do a collage short on the ’50s in general.

I had grown up having free reign to set up the projector any time I got bored of the forests and streams around her house when I was visiting her. I would pull out a pile of yellow Kodak boxes and pick through them for clues about my mother and my uncles as children, trying to fill in the blanks. I suppose mostly I was excited by the old cars and airplanes and trains.

Then Bruce sent the dictaphone records and I thought, maybe there’s something in that. A few years later I found out about the tapes. That’s when I thought. Wow, there’s a feature film in that box. Then finally, when I was almost finished with the film I found out about the “Must Read After My Death File” that gives the film it’s title. But since it is about 80% transcripts of the tapes that Allis had made before her death, it didn’t really add much more than the title and an idea of how obsessed she was with this story.

I had never edited something this long so I made up a lot of things that I probably wouldn’t do again. I started by logging all the tapes in an audio program that let me create a searchable database of audio regions I selected. The name of each region was transcription of that section of audio. I was pretty sure the film was going to be about how Bruce wound up mistakenly in a mental institution. So I logged everything I thought might inform that.

In the beginning I thought that it would be necessary to show viewers how times were different then. I wanted to avoid any expert testimony, so I started collecting pop culture clips that informed the issue. I had the Folgers ads where the neighbor tells her friend that her husband will leave her if she doesn’t start making better coffee. I had an ad for the African headshrinker game. There were school films for girls about how to make boys like you, how to bake your husband a cake.

This archival stuff was really fun footage that was just brimming with blatant misogyny and really showed the background of what the country was living through. But the more I worked with the material, the more it seemed to take you out of the story. Slowly I realized that the most powerful thing was what these people on the tapes were say to each other and sometimes to this disembodied listener who winds up being us in the audience forty years later.

I played around and around with so many beautiful stories and sequences. I spent a lot of time trying to make the narrative function in a non-linear way before realizing how much more that muddled things. I bought a book about three act screenplays and learned about that structure. My feeling was that in order for it to fly only relying on the family footage and tapes and no outside narration or interviews, the structure had to be something the audience could hold onto.

Then I tried to work like a writer. I got down and tried to listen hard to the characters. I made myself forget every story I knew about the family and everything I felt about them and concentrated on listening to what they were saying. I treated them like fictional characters and they told me what story was in that box. In writing class they tell you to kill your darlings and your darlings are all those things that you fall in love with but don’t work to tell the story.

That’s what my cutting room floor is littered with: all my darlings. Thanks god for DVD’s! So many things I couldn’t bear to leave out, but wouldn’t fit in the film will wind up there.

Do you see the film as more as a biography, a sociologic artifact, or a found-footage experiment?

I see the film as one story about a family, one of the many millions of stories you could tell about that family. I hope that if that very small, specific story captures a bit of truth that people can bring their own lives to that story and see them reflected in ways I couldn’t imagine.

Although the family attended extensive therapy sessions, it’s apparent Allis’ real therapy came through self-discovery and recognition. It reminded me of the Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell’s latest, Everlasting Moments, where a mother of seven finds refuge (but increasing alienation from her role as mother) through photography. Can you speak about how Allis may have used this documentation as both a means of both escape and release?

Yes Absolutely. The tape-recordings begin as a therapeutic activity suggested by a psychologist. I wonder how possible it is to escape into your problems. I think she may have had much more luck in these years if she had taken up photography, instead of dedicating her time to documenting her miseries. It all sounds a little bit more like an obsession than a release. I think it’s quite telling that there isn’t a single tape or document after Charley dies. She never returned to psychiatry. She moved to the country.

Allis must have foreseen something larger than herself in these recordings or she wouldn’t have saved them, let alone instructed others to find them. Does this change the status of the material from found footage? What does it say about Allis’ interpretation of her surroundings at the time?

As a diarist from childhood, I can tell you that there’s always a secret part of me looking over your shoulder saying, ‘one day, when my talents have been recognized the world will read this and wonder that I survived these miseries so well.’ I swear to you, most of my journals are just that pretentious, horrible and embarrassing. But I haven’t burnt them yet, but I may.

Allis spent the last 30 years of her life preparing her papers. One of the best tapes in that box was of a terrible fight where Allis seems to be goading Charley and Bruce into fighting about something she’s concerned about. It’s the only small tape, labeled, “Budget Discussion - Destroy”. What I mean to say is that you’re exactly right, that she fully expects this material to be seen.

That makes the material even more exciting, because in a way I’m showing you a woman telling her story. You like her, you trust her because you’re hearing her voice, but you’re not sure of her motives or how far you should trust her. In that sense the film is more like a fiction, because I’m not there to tell you who you should believe.

I feel that’s implicit in any recording. Even supposedly primitive peoples knew the first time they ever saw a camera that they were giving up something, some little bit of their soul, forever.

Found footage is a strange label for these materials anyway. I once found an old woman’s suitcase in the garbage in Barcelona. It was filled with her most cherished items; passports, family photos, love letters, maps of foreign cities. You could call it lost materials, that she lost them by dying and being the last person to care for these things. But they were really saved things, memories, she guarded her whole life. I took the case home and kept some of the things for years.

Multiple themes emerged throughout the film, including the detrimental effects of proscribed gender roles, self-monitoring and self-documenting punishment in the face of anti-conformity, anti-medicalization and anti-institution? Which themes do you find hold the most relevance today?

That was all another reason I realized I didn’t have to give you any background about the fifties and sixties. More and more I came to believe that these issues are all the same issues people face today. Some things seem to stick out more because the standards and morés in many areas have changed.

Do you trust your shrink and take the medication? Get a second opinion? Who do you trust. Do you work or have kids, balance the two? Do you have an open marriage or monogamy? Polygamy or polyamory? Do you get married or not. Is it even legal for you to get married? Do what everybody does or what you want to do?

I think I learned a lot of lessons from making “Must Read After My Death”, but one of the most gratifying things about the film for me is that everybody takes away something different.

If you’re interested in watching Must Read After My Death, email me at online@b-word.org before 5pm (Pacific Time!) on Friday, Feb 27 with “MRAMD tix” in the subject line and I’ll randomly pick ten emails to receive passes to Gigantic Digital’s online screening! Keep an eye out for the movie hitting your local independent theater as well.

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Must See Must Read Must Compliment

Kj- thanks for the heads up on the post, just read over and can't wait to see the film, so intense. seems to have a fascinating lens into family and social struggles of the time, great work, keep them coming. if there was any doubt in my mind it is now settled you the I-net Champ. -k

Will return to read

I'm always a little worried about spoilers, so I'll come back and read this after I see the film. Looks fantastic based on that trailer though...

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