Interview with David Heeley
Documentary directors David Heeley and Joan Kramer aren’t lying when they titled their biography, In the Company of Legends. There’s very few classic film stars they didn’t meet at some point in their careers, or, even better, create a documentary about. Their work has endured, right up to being showcased on TCM a few weeks back. I was fortunate to spend nearly 90-minutes talking to both Heeley and Kramer, in a series of conversations that made me feel as if I found two kindred spirits. My interview with Heeley ran the gamut from helping him recall The Lion in Winter and discussing the real-life addiction to TCM that I swear exists. (Haven’t we all said we’ll just watch one movie?).
Kristen: I read the book last week and I saw your TCM tribute with Joan. It seems fortuitous that we’re talking today.
David Heeley: That was wonderful of TCM to give us that evening.
K: I was just at the TCM Film Festival last week!
DH: I wish we were there.
K: I actually thought it would be amazing for you and Joan to be there. Hopefully they’ll consider you guys next year.
DH: We can’t complain. We have incredible friends at TCM, and we love the festival too!
K: What was it like, getting that experience with Robert Osborne and discussing your work?
DH: I have to tell you, we didn’t even know for sure if we would be on with Robert. We heard they were scheduling an evening with our shows and when we heard we were going to talk to Robert that was icing on the cake for us. Robert, as you probably know, read the book and wrote a wonderful blurb for us. He’s a great friend, and you can’t ask for a better person to talk to about classic films. He knows more than we know! Fortunately, we have a few stories that were personal to us that we could tell, otherwise he’d know everything. He makes you feel comfortable, very much at ease. It’s just like chatting with a friend. A friend in which you have so much in common.
K: Did you guys anticipate your documentaries would be shown all the way in 2015? How do you think they withstand the test of time with all the classic film fans that are out there?
DH: Of course not, no. The first film we did about Fred Astaire came out in 1980. At that time, I think home video was just getting attention, but no one was thinking about home video at all. When we were making the program we had to license clips, and we did what everybody did and licensed them for the broadcast period. So after three years there were no more rights for those shows, which was a great shame. It wasn’t until we did the Judy Garland show that there was any thought about the shows we were doing having a life beyond broadcast. The Spencer Tracy Legacy was a co-production with MGM. The deal was that public television got the broadcast rights and then MGM got all the distribution after that. So things changed rapidly, and we knew at a certain point the shows would be seen for awhile, but you never think they’d be seen twenty years later. And it’s fascinating to look back through my eyes, or Joan’s eyes, and say, “how do they stand up?” To me, the Astaire shows stand up very well. The second show we did, which is not available, was a portrait of Katharine Hepburn (Starring Katharine Hepburn in 1981), I thought to myself, if we were making that now, we would do it differently. It’s okay, there’s some good stuff in it, but it could have been a little sharper, a little less adoring. And, I think, after that show we got our act together. In a way I’m not sorry that show is out of rights. I was able to make myself watch some of the shows on Tuesday night – sometimes it’s hard to watch things you’ve done yourself – and I was surprised to see they do hold up, some of them spectacularly well; Katharine Hepburn: All About Me works beautifully still.
K: You and Joan’s documentaries are definitely special. They’re not sycophantic, overly praise-worthy documentaries. You really show the full breadth of the people. I watch a lot of docs and there’s a tendency to either deify or attack the subjects. Your work finds a happy medium between getting past the persona without being disrespectful to why that persona works.
DH: Thank you, I’m glad you feel that way. We were trying to find out who was this person, what was it that made them the legends they became. Why do we care so much? Why did they become big movie stars? That’s what we were trying to reveal.
K: You pull double duty as both the director and guiding the conversation. What type of challenges does that present?
DH: Television directors have a different role from a director in a movie. In television, as opposed to movies, the director is somebody who’s often brought in fairly late in the game to execute the product. I didn’t like being that, although I started my career in that direction. I wanted to be a very involved director, which meant I needed to be a producer as well. I enjoyed having the producer and director role. It meant I knew exactly what I was looking for when I was directing because I was producing. That was not a big conflict, it was a huge plus.
K: And for those who haven’t read the book, why the decision now to detail your lives?
DH: Over the years, when we were doing the shows, we’d regale our friends with our stories. And people would say, “Oh, you should write a book!” It was only after we retired that we thought maybe we should think about writing them down. We started jotting a few down, and then we managed to get a literary agent who said, “I think you have a book here.” We wrote a sample chapter and shopped it around. All the major publishers turned us down, with wonderful rejection letters, I should say. Finally, we found a publisher and then we had to really do it! It’s a lot of hard work, writing, and it’s a different type of writing skill from writing for television. In television, you’re often trying to cram 15 acts into 15 seconds without it feeling rushed, yet in a book you can let the stories breathe.
K: And what works is how you bring your own individual voices. Was that type of POV something you had planned on when writing the book or did that come out organically?
DH: When we started writing we couldn’t work out how to do that. We tried collaboratively doing paragraphs, and eventually we realized that, although we’re telling the same stories, we have two different voices. We do have different views of things, and we finally said, “Why don’t we try writing some parts collaboratively, and other parts as our own version of a story and see how it fits together.” That’s what we ended up doing and it’s the only way we could do a book like this. It wasn’t just Joan wrote something and I wrote something, we’d each comment on what we wrote, so there’s a little bit of each of us in the other’s stories. It did allow us to bring our own flavors and viewpoints to what’s going on.
K: Well, I was going to ask if you two feared contaminating each other’s stories and didn’t want to show them right away. Did you try to keep stuff separate until the bitter end?
DH: There’s no simple answer to that. It was a little bit of everything. I do remember, for example, I told Joan to write the story about how I went across the Atlantic and Kate [Hepburn] calls you [Joan] because she’s really upset. It happened to you, and I’ll take a look at it and see how it feels. Joan wrote that whole sequence, it was about two pages long. I started reading what she’d written and started laughing out loud.
K: That brings up a good point, about your partnership. You two have a great collaboration, and often the book’s humorous highlights are specific to you. You’re often the voice of reason due to your Britishness whereas Joan is always sick.
DH: I’m glad you find it funny because some of the things, at the time, were far from funny. When we look at them now, they’re quite amusing because we’re people too.
K: Too often, in most biographies, those elements are left out to pretty things up. You guys are incredibly candid.
DH: We learned things from [the stars]. When we did Katharine Hepburn: All About Me, which is just her talking to the camera, we actually wrote the first draft of the script. You can imagine how that would be, trying to be Kate, writing her life for her. What’s she gonna say about us being her? Fortunately, by then, we knew how she spoke, her style, her mannerisms, and we were able to capture her personality in our style of writing. In the end, she made very few changes, but the changes she made were to poke fun at herself; she realized that made the story far more interesting – that she could see her own flaws – and that resonated with me. I realized, if you’re going to write, don’t hide the things you’d want to normally hide from, because that makes you human and people identify with you.
K: Do you have a favorite interview subject or favorite star moment that was utterly crazy or amazing?
DH: The book is full of them! There are so many individual stories; that first morning on the Riviera Country Club Golf course, at the crack of dawn, when both Kate and I are nervous, and how we get through that or when we were about to shoot Katharine Hepburn: All About Me, and the nor’easter shows ups!
K: As a classic film critic, I have to ask if you have any favorite classic films?
DH: That’s a tough question! I’m not gonna be obscure because the films I love are the films everybody loves.
K: That’s why they’re essential!
DH: My favorite Katharine Hepburn film…what’s the name of the one where she’s Eleanor of Aquitaine?
K: The Lion in Winter!
DH: Thank you!
K: That’s a good one!
DH: I just love The Lion in Winter. It’s a script to die for, the words you can quote all over the place, and the performances are stunning! That’s one of my favorite Katharine Hepburn films. And I don’t know where I’d go…I’m the sort of person who turns on turns on TCM at 8 o’clock at night and says what’s Robert gonna say? What happens to me is I switch it on and two hours go by!
K: Well, and when they play your documentaries you realize that they’re continuing the legacy of showing us these stars in a new way, free of sanitizing and control.
DH: We were very lucky, let’s not forget that. We just lucked out that we started doing these, purely by accident. We started doing them at the right time in history, when these people were still around. When, for some reason, no one was doing these sorts of show. When I called Katharine Hepburn, why wasn’t I one of twenty people calling her? Why didn’t Henry Fonda have a room full of requests?
K: Awesome! Well, I have to call Joan and get her thoughts.
DH: Kristen, it was wonderful talking to you.
K: Same here! Thank you so much!
Stay tuned for my talk with In the Company of Legends co-author, Joan Kramer!
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
4 thoughts on “Interview with David Heeley” Leave a comment ›