Interview conducted by GOOD DOCS Intern Celeste Kirby
First, I’d like to congratulate you on an incredible film. For those who have not seen the film, can you tell us a little bit about it?
I came across Lee Miller’s story quite a long time ago, probably around the time when her son published a book about his mother’s life. I read the book, and I thought, what an amazing woman she was and what an incredible story she had. It had been lodged in my brain for a long time and what I tend to find with stories is that they find their moment when it’s the right moment for them to happen. A few years ago I made a film about another extraordinary artist called Leonora Carrington, a painter. As it happened, Lee Miller, the photographer, took some of the most interesting, amazing pictures of Leonora when she was having a relationship with Max Ernst. They were both part of the surrealist circles in the 1930s, in Paris, in particular. For the film about Leonora, because Lee Miller isn’t alive anymore, I interviewed Lee Miller’s son, Tony Penrose, about his mother’s relationship with Leonora. We talked about that amazing moment in time in Paris in the 1930s, which was one of those kinds of moments where you wish you were there. It was a fantastic meeting point of lots of incredible creative forces. At the end of that interview, I said to Tony that I had always wanted to make something about Lee, and he just said, “Let’s talk.”
It took a while, and there were lots of back and forth, but eventually we agreed and the archive gave me the go-ahead to make a film about Lee. The problem with Lee Miller is that she’s got too much story. You could make a ten-part series about Lee Miller. I think there’s a feature film about to happen about Lee Miller. She’s just got such an incredible life and every chapter of her life is so different and so extraordinary. There was too much story to tell. How was I going to boil this incredible person down? I would’ve liked to make a longer film, but as it turned out, I had to make a 60-minute film about Lee Miller, so it was really a question of editing this incredible woman’s life.
It feels like her story is particularly relevant now because we are very much at a point in time where we’re trying really hard to celebrate amazing women's lives that haven’t necessarily been. She’s not unknown, still, she’s not as famous as some of her male contemporaries, who are really well known now. It’s time to celebrate these amazing women and their achievements and their incredible lives. I felt with Lee that my take on her life is, half of her life she was a model and a muse to other artists, and then she picked up a camera and became an artist herself. So she had this amazing perspective of two sides of the story. Every time she did something, she then went on and reinvented herself and did something else.
What are some other challenges that you encountered while creating this film?
The difficulty of making a biography about someone’s entire life is you can’t tell anybody’s whole life. Hence, it is a question of editing a life down into what I find exciting and exciting as a filmmaker. Other people would have told different bits of her story and picked different things, different images, quotes, and bits of her writing. The other challenge is thinking about who your audience is. If you go on Instagram or Pinterest, you’ll see loads of people collecting images of Lee Miller. There are many people who are passionate about her, but the challenge is to tell her story freshly and interestingly to people who know it and introduce it to people who don’t. I also wanted it to be accessible to different generations, interested in art history, and might know about her work with Man Ray but didn’t know about her war photography. Hopefully, younger women who might not know her story can look at the imagery that she created or the pictures she made with Man Ray and say, “Wow, she was bold and brave and creative,” and to take inspiration from that. That’s why I tried quite hard to find the people that I interviewed.
It’s all women, apart from her son. I was trying to find different generations of women, different types of women, women who came to her story. Some people tell the biographical story, but the three other people I interviewed had an additional functionality to add to the story. For example, I incorporated Jessie Man because I wanted to find someone who had grown up in front of the camera like Lee. I was thinking very hard about who I can find with a unique perspective on her imagery or her story. I tracked down Jessie and asked, and as it turned out, she was a huge Lee Miller fan, so that was great.
With Karen Elson, I wanted someone who could talk articulately about the process of modeling and inspiring someone else. I was really interested and I did a research call with her. She spoke of the fact that people always assume as a model that you’re just a blank canvas, but it’s a very collaborative practice working with a photographer and it’s a creative partnership, so I wanted someone who could articulate that.
Then with Lynsey Addario, I really wanted to try to find a woman conflict photographer who could offer some insight into that experience. Now there’s quite a lot of women doing that work, not a huge amount, but they are out there. Lee Miller was one of the first; she was such a pioneer. I searched quite hard to find people who would give us a sort of personal insight into that piece of her story.
In your film you include audio, photographs, and film from Lee’s lifetime, as well as recent footage and interviews with Lee’s family and biographers. Why did you decide to structure the film with this juxtaposition of historical and current accounts?
If you’re just making a straightforward biography, you would interview the biographer and you would interview anyone alive who knew her. There are not that many people alive now. I did lots of research interviews and then chose the people to film, and I spoke to many people who knew her, but they all knew her when they were children, they were Tony’s friends. All her contemporaries are not around anymore. I interviewed people who grew up with her son and knew her as a much older woman. I talked to them to build a picture of her, but then chose a range of voices. Tony Penrose is her son, so he has a very particular take on his mother’s life and has done a lot of work centered on it. I was keen to interview her granddaughter Amy because I thought she also knows the story well, but she’s a woman, and she’s younger, and she’ll have a different way of telling that story.
Then Carolyn Burke has written a seminal biography of Lee Miller, so she seemed like a very authoritative voice. I was really interested in speaking with Marion, who was the screenwriter. She wrote a screenplay about Lee Miller’s life, so she’d researched in great depth. Marion was also a Vogue writer, so she brought a fashion, Vogue background to her storytelling. That’s why I chose her. Then the contemporary women were imperative to me - if you were just making a biography, those people would tell you a narrative. Still, I was trying hard to bring her story into the present day and show how it’s reflected, how it was a good mirror to the things that are happening today and how people can take inspiration from that. That’s why I chose those particular people.
As David Scherman states in a clip towards the end of your film, Lee lived many “discreet, totally different lives.” How did you navigate capturing all of her different passions and phases of life?
I think her son would probably argue that there’s too much that’s been left out, but that was just by necessity. There were all kinds of stuff that I didn’t do. I didn’t go into great depth about her photographic studio in New York, and I kind of missed that entirely because I just didn’t have time in the film. If you put one thing in, you have to take something else out. Sixty minutes is not very long to tell a life like Lee Miller’s. It was determined by what interested me, really, and things that I felt were perhaps relevant. I didn’t really know that much about her and her father’s story, so that riveted me and felt like a mystery to me.
No one knows, really, what lay at the heart of their relationship, one can only speculate, but the pictures he took of her are so extraordinary and striking. It felt imperative to tell that story because he was a photographic pioneer and the pictures they created together are quite controversial. Still, they are really striking and interesting, so I felt it was important to put that in.
Her relationship with Man Ray is one of the great artistic partnerships of the 20th century. It felt also essential to show that she wasn’t just a pretty girl who sat in front of Man Ray’s camera; she was someone who was a creative partner in that relationship. That’s why I wanted Karen and Jessie to talk about that. She learned a lot from him and then she went on and did lots of amazing work. She ran her photographic studio in Paris and did all kinds of stuff, but I didn’t have time to go into great depth about all the things she was doing.
The way I structured the film once I decided what I was interested in is I picked images; I actually had a huge board of photographs either of her or by her, and I tried to boil it down to key images and sort of built a timeline out of key images. Then I built little stories around those images, which are kind of a representation of a seminal moment in her life. The picnic, the Mougins picnic pictures, is just a moment in time, but it sort of encapsulates something about her spirit and life. A very critical, kind of pivotal moment in her life and in Europe at that moment. I tried to build it around images, and in the war I picked what I felt, so the Leipzig suicide images, I was really struck by those. They are really amazing pictures, and I kind of felt like they very graphically said something about what she was encountering. The picture of her in Hitler’s bath has become iconic, and again, it just says something about the partnership of the two of them. It says something about her wit and her boldness and her chutzpah of just finding that address and going in and being present at these incredible moments. The concentration camp pictures, you have to include that imagery because there was maybe one other woman who took pictures like that. When I went down to the archives to look through her work, they’ve got folders; I think there are 60,000 negatives they had of her work; I mean, there are thousands and thousands. I looked through folders of the contact sheets from the war, lots of folders, and I opened a folder and got to the contact sheets from Dachau and they just made me burst into tears. When you’re looking through a little viewer, you almost feels like you’re there. It’s almost like you’re looking through Lee Miller’s lens. You look at these images, and it’s like a visceral punch to be hit by shocking pictures and try to think about what that did to her. There was a process of looking at pictures and then trying to build a story around the ones that really struck me for whatever reason.
How did the collaboration with Lee’s family members and family friends add to this project and your understanding of Lee’s life story?
They were extremely supportive and helpful because they made the archives available to me and showed me what they had. They showed me objects in the collection and they were incredibly informative in terms of putting me in touch with people to speak to. I did my own research, but they suggested childhood friends of Tony’s that I could talk to for background research. They were creative partners and they have a massive wealth of information that they’ve collected over time, so they have a comprehensive and fascinating archive. They have her personal possessions, her house, her photographs, her negatives, magazines, original copies of magazines, letters, diaries, so they just gave me access to that and sort of guided me, so it was a very helpful process with them.
What do you hope women watching your film will gain from learning the story of Lee Miller?
Inspiration is the key. Inspiration because I think Jessie says this in the film, "We need role models like Lee Miller." We need role models. We need to tell women’s bold, brave, and fearless stories where they forge their own path. Many massive male creative egos surrounded her and she held her own and did her own thing and was a great creative artist. If you think back to that time during the war 60 or 70 years ago, she was unusual. Women didn’t do stuff like that. I hope people take away from it something about having the courage to believe in yourself and follow your heart. Also, we need to see people who aren’t airbrushed, people who aren’t perfect. Lee was a complicated, very imperfect person, but nonetheless an important one. She battled her demons for a long time, but she survived and she reinvented herself. She took up cooking and became a bit of a chef; she did all kinds of things. She struggled, and as David Scherman, who knew her very well, said, she wasn’t always a lovely person, but she was a unique and interesting person.
Is there anything you would like to address that I haven’t asked you about?
I would just end by urging people if they watch the film… I think as a filmmaker what you hope, because you can’t tell the whole story, you only get to tell the tip of the iceberg; I would hope that it would inspire people to look at her pictures, to find out more, to go dig around on the Internet or in a book or an archive or in a library or wherever. Just type her into Google, you’ll see so many images, but make sure you look at her images by Man Ray, which are all up there because they’re very famous, but also look at her pictures and search around and go to the Farley Farm. They’ve got a great website and they’ve got a great archive and you can look at her work. They’ve curated huge amounts of her work online.