Interview with Rachael Horovitz, Executive Producer of Grey Gardens

by Melissa Silverstein on April 17, 2009

in TV,Women Producers

Co-posted on wowOwow.com

“Grey Gardens” premieres April 18 on HBO, and before you watch it, read what Executive Producer Rachael Horovitz says about stars Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, the Kennedy family and the enduring women behind the legacy. Horovitz, whose film-producing credits include the movies About Schmidt, State and Main and Next Stop Wonderland opens up to Melissa Silverstein, wowOwow’s correspondent and founder of the website Women & Hollywood.

MELISSA SILVERSTEIN: You use the Maysles’s 1975 cult documentary “Grey Gardens” as the frame for this version. Can you explain why it was so important?

Rachael Horovitz and Michael Sucsy (writer-director, Grey Gardens)

Rachael Horovitz and Michael Sucsy (writer-director, Grey Gardens)

RACHAEL HOROVITZ: I feel like I was completely raised on that film. My mom had gotten me to see it when it came out and she had a great sense of irony. She passed away over 20 years ago and it was one of these things that we shared. It was completely her idiom, as far as the poetry of it, the humor and the zaniness. And my brothers and I really grew up knowing lines from the movie, and quoting them to one another. The documentary was just a beloved favorite film.

The backstory on this film starts with Michael Sucsy (the film’s director) who had written a script that predated my knowing him. It was a chronological, very rich, very ambitious period piece that started with the ’30s and went in order through Big Edie’s death. It included the full debutante ball, and the Inauguration of JFK in Washington. It would have definitely cost a lot of money. Also [Michael] hadn’t gotten the rights to the documentary, and so his script skirted the documentary. Coincidentally, I was trying to get the rights to the documentary. I knew Albert Maysles and we were talking very seriously about making a deal together to do a film based on the documentary, when I learned about the other project.

MS: OK.

RH: So we decided — in the aftermath of the two Capote films and the terror of having that same experience — to “get married.” I brought the documentary rights and they brought their script and we redesigned his script by patching the documentary into it.

MS: Did you have any intentions of having it be a theatrical release?

RH: Many. That was the plan, but we felt that either way we would be very, very lucky. Unfortunately, the theatrical arm (of HBO), Picturehouse, was shut, as was Warner Independent, which was the in-house Time Warner company. I actually started my studio-career working at Fine Line, which was the precursor to Picturehouse. I definitely brought to this production team almost too much knowledge of how easy it is to flame out in the specialized theatrical market. And I was really, really pushing for making the film with HBO, because I thought that if we did have to give up theatrical, that the trade-off would be fantastic.

MS: That’s very smart.

RH: And probably more people — and this has now become a cliché to say this — but more people would see it on HBO than would see it in five or six art-house cinemas around the country.

MS: What is it about these women that is so endearing?

RH: Well, I don’t know that I can answer it for everyone. But if I answer it for myself maybe it’ll be universal. They really feel like family. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a relative whom they dearly love, who also embarrasses them and who’s painfully at odds with the outside world. And if not a relative, then a friend or an in-law. I think a lot of people relate to this story directly. And while I don’t feel that I relate to it directly, it’s not an accident that my mother adored this movie. She had a lot of the Edies in her. She never had a job. She was a true artist in her soul.

She was incredibly intuitive, verbal and clever, and she was actually a very talented painter. I think that what makes the documentary so irresistible and so memorable is that they’re just completely charming and unique characters. And the words that come out of their mouths are as sophisticated and entertaining as anything in theater — and I go all the way to Shakespeare now.

MS:Why did you cast Drew Barrymore?

RH: Drew initially wasn’t on the list. That’s something that she is wearing as a badge of success and brilliance and vision, because she saw herself as Little Edie before we did. But very quickly, after being given this fantastic idea of Drew Barrymore as Edie, it became a slam-dunk in the sense that she has her own family history and experience to bring to this. I had always known how bright Drew was. I have really, really close friends that are very close to Drew. It was never a question to me that she was bright and self-educated, which is a kind of an interesting route that some actors take. Information isn’t given to them and it felt like Drew was going to make a very serious commitment to the role, and without question we knew she had the talent, particularly the comic timing. If you look at the documentary it’s fucking hilarious. It really is. And Edie had, if nothing, comic timing. And what we didn’t want was a straight actor to take those slightly melodramatic bits in the movie and play them straight. It had to have irony.

MS: Were the Kennedy’s involved in this film in any way?

RH: No, not at all. John Kennedy was one of my oldest and dearest friends. I had had meals with his mother, and so, having met Jackie, I was the on-set Jackie authority. I thought about John, as I did my mother, constantly. And at one point the script had Ari Onassis in it. That was painful to lose.

MS: Do you think that people will relate to this story differently in this economy?

RH:Maybe.

MS:I got a sense that this path that they chose — but I always felt that because they were so resourceful that they could have figured out how to fix the house, but they just didn’t want to compromise themselves.

RH:I completely agree. I mean, I think that’s the X factor. I just read something that Drew said — which is exactly how I feel — which is that the X factor is the total filth and the stench and the squalor. That’s very hard to explain away. And so when you do face that — and you do have to face it — there were some screws loose.

MS: Yup.

RH: There clearly has to have been. But it’s something that I think is underlying the story, which is incredibly moving to me and, again, it’s sort of how I think about mother, is it would have been tragic to see Little Edie being a law-firm secretary. There are just some people who can’t have jobs in the real world, and it’s not like an alternative to be rich.

MS: Right.

RH: Maybe she could have cleaned houses. Again, there were so many social mores then. East Hampton was just as rife with mores as the Upper East Side or Fifth Avenue.

MS: But their isolation, also, maybe caused some of the screws to loosen more.

RH: I’m sure that’s true. And worrying about money, which I know from firsthand experience, can drive you mad. It really can. I would think it would be like having a fatal illness. It’s like you can’t go to sleep and forget about it.

MS: What was it like working with Jessica Lange?

RH: It was ecstatic. It was awe inspiring and it’s hard to come up with language that doesn’t sound phony, but we never — with both of them — wanted to miss a take. You wanted to see how they did it differently every time, and how they built on scenes that came before. And Jessica’s sense of irony, too, I think is kind of unknown. You get to see the ironic Jessica here, whereas you think of Jessica as fully dramatic. And then inversely you get to see the dramatic side of Drew, where you mainly think of her as doing romantic comedies.

MS: I also think what’s interesting is that these women were ultimate “insiders” and then they became total outsiders.

RH: Say that another way.

MS: When you see them at the beginning, they seem to have everything. Great life. Money. Beautiful. Everything. But over their lifetimes they became total outsiders. So the insiders become outsiders.

RH: I would agree. But isn’t that what happens to everyone as they get older?

MS: I guess it does. But it’s worse for women.

RH: If you’re lucky enough to stay alive, then you’re going to have a moment where you’re not in the mainstream. And there are people who cope with that better than others. But I think that everyone’s going to talk about this as a mother/daughter story. But I also do think that it has a lot to say about money and power. I’m in my head now because my next film is called “Moneyball,” based on the Michael Lewis book. It’s a baseball story, but it’s really a story about putting a value on yourself.

MS: Right.

RH: Money is the other character in “Grey Gardens.” It’s about the house but it’s also, really, about the money that pays for the house. And money is also the wild card in the relationship between Jackie (Onassis) and Little Edie. Little Edie was as pretty, if not prettier, and maybe more talented than Jackie. Who knows? It’s not as if Jackie got to realize any of her skills, did she?

MS: No.

RH: And that wasn’t very long ago.

MS: You talk about it as a mother/daughter love story. There was a lot of resentment, too, that Little Edie had for Big Edie, for making her stay with her — the thin line between love and hate.

RH: Their relationship became very much like a marriage. What I understand from older friends is that if you’re not careful, you can blame your spouse for the fact that you’ve gotten older. Who else are you going to blame except the person in the bed next to you, and the person at breakfast every day? Because the fact is you are going to get older and you are going to lose your spot in the mainstream.

MS: Right.

RH: I do think there was some of that anger on both their parts that they didn’t end up where they wanted to.

MS: You’ve worked on documentaries and features?

RH: I’ve only done one doc. I love them. My dream is to get rich in narrative films so I can give it all up and make docs.

MS: How’s that going for you?

RH: Laughter. Maybe next year.

MS: What’s it like to be back in the producer role versus the studio-exec role?

RH: I took my first studio job to find out what went on in the room (where decisions are made). I had been an independent producer in my 20s. I never planned on getting a job. I didn’t think anyone would give me one. But then a couple of things happened and I realized I had all the goods, except that I didn’t know how they decided to buy your project or not. So in other words, I had a major project that became a megahit. And somebody sold it better than I did, and I ended up losing it. And it was Analyze This.

MS: Oh.

RH: So I said, “OK, Rachael, this is your fault, because you had a good script. What did you do wrong?” Coincidentally, there was a job opening in the New York office of Fine Line and I went after the job, with the goal of going inside, getting the information and coming back out. And, actually, the whole time I worked at the studios I always had a kind of side role advising all my friends in the independent world. I didn’t plan on staying in for as long as I did, but it was nice to earn money, it was nice to have health insurance and it was amazing to meet everybody, and it really was the best graduate school possible.

MS: What kind of advice would you give to a woman producer who has material that she wants to develop?

RH: I credit my former boss Andy Karsh, who gave me the best advice when I was going inside. He said — and I believe he was quoting Nabokov — “Don’t weaken your opinion because of who you’re talking to.” And it definitely didn’t please everybody that I behaved that way. I did always feel that I spoke the truth to what I felt. And that’s basically the advice I’ve come back to when I’ve spoken with younger, more junior producers. You can say, “I was wrong.” But you don’t want to say when you go home, “I didn’t really have a voice today.”

MS: What do you want people to get out of “Grey Gardens”?

RH: Well, first you want them to enjoy the experience of watching the film. You want them not to hit the pause button. You want people to really enjoy it and to feel that the story is moving forward at all times. And I want them to feel that the questions that they might have had were adequately answered. And I would like them to be happy.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Leake Little July 1, 2009 at 11:17 AM

Great interview and film. I just heard about the imminent failure of Moneyball as a film project and had to look up Rachel. She and I were contemporaries at college in NC during the early ’80s – I can easily say she has been “producing” worthwhile projects from the beginning (“America in Pieces”). Better luck with the next project!

Christine Roundtree June 26, 2012 at 2:00 AM

I saw the original doc in the seventies and was drawn-in by the authenticity of Big Edie and Little Edie. It was an amazing work. Decades later, I watched the HBO version and could not believe how closely the project captured not only the look of the “real” people but also the “feel” of the original setting and circumstances. Later, I found out that you are the daughter of my late cousin Doris Keefe and I was and remain incredibly proud of you.
Warmest regards, Christine Roundtree ( Providence, RI )

Christine Roundtree February 19, 2013 at 2:53 PM

Hello Rachael,

Princess Lee Radziwill offered very positive comments, in The New York Times, Sunday Styles Magazine (February 17, 2013), about your remake of Grey Gardens. The piece about Radziwill is very well done (and long) but the photos of her both in her younger years as well as now are astonishing in their (her) beauty. She mentioned Grey Gardens and her relatives, The Edies, on page 190 of the special edition of The NYT Styles Magazine. She mentiones the origin of the documentary and her part in it, as well as the Maysles. Then she remarked to the interviewer, “The remake is good. Have you seen it?”
Thought you would like to know. I am not on Facebook or any other social media so I hope this reaches you.
Warm regards,
Christine Roundtree (Providence, RI)

P.S. Kim has copies of photographs for you. One is of your Mom as a child.

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