“The Kids Grow Up” – My Interview with Doug Block
On October 29 filmmaker Doug Block (“51 Birch Street”) will premiere his new documentary “The Kids Grow Up” at the Angelika Film Center in New York. Doug took time from his busy schedule to sit down with me at OST Café at 12 Street and Avenue A. We had an enjoyable and wide ranging conversation that covered everything from the technical aspects of filmmaking (cameras, microphones, editing) to the emotional and ethical aspects of making a documentary about one’s family.
“The Kids Grow Up” is a beautifully made, compelling portrait of Doug’s daughter Lucy. The film is about her last year of high school and primarily concerns how Lucy’s “leaving the nest” for college on the West Coast affected Doug and his wife Marjorie. “You can get all sorts of help when it comes to raising a child,” Doug says in the film’s opening narration, “But nothing prepares you for letting her go.” Doug’s quest to understand and accept Lucy’s imminent departure takes him to parents of Lucy’s classmates, his two sisters, brother-in-law, step-son and Doug’s own father Mike, who sadly passed away in August of 2009. Doug asks them to explain their feelings about kids growing up and leaving home. “It was Hell,” Mike tells Doug revealing for the very first time how he felt when Doug and his two sisters left home. Doug hears a variety of answers and experiences. He also observes the greater level of involvement his generation seems to have in their kids’ lives in contrast to that of his parents’ post WWII generation.
The theme of how parents and children relate to each other echoes Doug’s previous film “51 Birch Street” (2005). “51 Birch Street,” was a documentary that looked beneath the surface of Doug’s parents’ seemingly happy marriage. The film also dealt with Doug’s adult relationship with his emotionally undemonstrative father. What Doug has been able to do so brilliantly with both “51 Birch Street” and “The Kids Grow Up” is take personal subject matter and present it in a manner that is dramatic and universal. “I felt like I was really onto something really interesting about families and about the whole transition period as a parent whose kid is going off which is so little talked about and written about and certainly filmed about.”
What makes “The Kids Grown Up” unique, in addition to its subject matter, is its editorial choice to move back and forth in time. Doug, along with editor and co-writer Maeve O’Boyle, has created a wonderful balance between past and present. “So much of this is about the small moments,” Doug told me. In one of the film’s most interesting sequences Lucy goes to take her road test. The event is inter-cut with footage of Lucy, age six, going to have her ears pierced. Doug said, “There was something about her excitement and nervousness at the test that so reminded me of when she was getting her ears pierced. She was like six-years-old again…It is very interesting seeing moments of the little kid in the adult Lucy and moments of the adult Lucy in the little kid…I think you tend to look for her personality back then and how it informs how she is now. So I think it all helps to create a linear progression of her character even though you’re jumping around a little bit in chronology.”
Regarding how Lucy and Marjorie feel about being subjects of a documentary Doug told me that “It’s always father and husband first…When you make these kinds of films you have to do it with their feelings in mind first. I was fully prepared to shelve the film if Lucy thought it would just be too much for her.”
An issue with which Doug had to contend during shooting was Marjorie going through a period of depression, possibly caused by Lucy’s looming departure. Regarding whether to video tape his wife in that state and use the footage Doug recalled, “The thought was appalling. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it for about two months…We agreed she would look at it (the footage) and it would go if she didn’t want it. It was the hardest thing I ever shot.” Although the footage was under four minutes Doug remembered, “I didn’t look at it for six months…I really debated using it or not.” He concluded that “It can be really powerful for people to see somebody who gets depressed and recovers in the course of a story that does not have anything at all to do with depression…In terms of de-stigmatizing depression what could be more powerful than to treat it so matter of factly, almost as if she broke her leg and was laid up for a while and then the cast came off and she got better? To make it that normal I think can really help when there’s so much shame felt around depression and mental illness. Marjorie, as soon as she got better was totally for it.” He went on to say that “A number of people have gone up to her after the screening (and have said) thank you for doing that. I suffer from depression. I haven’t even told my family about it.”
“Personal films are really tricky because the thing that makes any story interesting is conflict and yet the one thing you don’t want to create in your own family is conflict. So how do you set that up and yet make it so everyone’s OK with it?” Doug explained regarding his approach to the genre of personal documentaries. “I’ve shot so much of my family that it seems normal to them. I try to approach it not as my own therapy but as a story with characters.”
For information about and tickets to the screening of “The Kids Grow Up” at IFC Center on April 20 please visit http://www.STFdocs.com.