Laura Gabbert on Aging With Dignity in Sunset Story

Laura Gabbert on Aging With Dignity in Sunset Story

Through Irja Lloyd and Lucille Alpert's wit, compassion, and insight, Sunset Storywhich is produced by Caroline Libresco & Eden Wurmfeld—reveals the complexities and realities of growing old and how to think about aging and death. Here we speak to the Director, Laura Gabbert, as she shares how she formed an unexpected relationship with two of its most outspoken and charming members in this character-driven documentary.

What drew you to this particular story, and why did you think it was important to share?
Eden Wurmfeld, one of the producers of the film, and I read an article about Sunset Hall on the front page of The New York Times. It was a slow news day. I just finished graduate school and had been living in Los Angeles for three years. Eden and I read the article on the same day, and we called each other and said that it would make a great documentary. We were interested in the history of the place, this history of activism. It was sort of a community that was defined by the politics of these ex-Communists, still staunch Socialists and activists. Originally, we wanted to make a film about the history of the left through the stories of the residents at Sunset Hall. We told them we were interested in making a film, but we really wanted to get to know the people and give back to the place, so we volunteered there a few hours every week. And what we discovered was that many of the residents had dementia or Alzheimer’s and couldn’t really tell us their stories in any sort of cohesive way. I think we had spent about six months volunteering there when we began to do a little bit of shooting. Lucille and Irja moved in within two weeks of each other and they became instant friends. They both were totally lucid, active people with interesting stories, so the film very quickly became focused on the two of them and their friendship. The history and politics of Sunset Hall became the backdrop for the film.

Did you ever start to lose hope about the project's prospects before Irja and Lucille came along?
We hadn’t given up; I think we were still just trying to make our way. I think we were just holding out hope. We enjoyed volunteering there and talking to the people but I do remember that we were starting to feel a little bit like, maybe we don’t have a film here. And then Lucille and Irja moved in, and we realized that they’re the classic odd couple. We originally did audio interviews with people, and when we heard their audio interviews and saw them together we kind of knew, let’s focus on the two of them. Throughout the film, they were almost uncomfortable with our focus on them, they would always say, “There are other people who live here. You should interview them.” And we would talk to other people, too, but we knew they were our focus, that the film would revolve around them. 

Did they ever get comfortable with being the center of attention?
They got very comfortable with it, yeah. It didn’t take long. We really enjoyed spending time with them, that was a genuine thing. We developed a real friendship with them and I think they really enjoyed being around us, too. We would take them out and do things with them. Like any good documentary, the relationship really needs to be strong. There needs to be a foundation of trust, and I think they really did trust us. They knew what we were trying to do. I think in a lot of documentaries that work on an emotional level, there starts to be a collaboration between the subjects and the filmmakers.

I imagine the slow pace of life in a retirement home must have been difficult for women as outspoken and active as Irja and Lucille. How did they adjust to that loss of independence?
They didn’t complain about that to us. I know that’s an issue for a lot of people, they want to stay independent for as long as they can. But they both willingly moved to Sunset Hall. It wasn’t like they had family members pressuring them to do that. Irja, especially, wanted to be in a community with other activists and she was excited about living there. She needed quite a bit of help; she had a very weak heart. I think their health issues would get them down, but they were both at a point in their lives where they both needed an assisted living situation. They were happy they didn’t have to cook and do their own dishes anymore, and they liked the idea of a communal living situation. They were so happy to find each other. I think if they hadn't had that friendship, it might have been a different situation. But they really became best friends. They became quite close right away and really relied on each other. One of the things we noticed right away was the symbiotic way they walked around. Lucille would push Irja’s wheelchair, but Irja also supported her while she walked. We really loved that as a visual metaphor for their relationship. They kind of completed each other.

The rapport between Irja and Lucille was really fun to watch. They have so much vivaciousness and sass. Were you surprised by that energy and candor?
They were really fun people to spend time with. We got a huge kick out of them and they got a kick out of us, and we had wonderful conversations. Lucille, in particular—she called herself a "newshound". She read every newspaper and watched every news show.She also was really interested in pop culture. We took her to go see Eyes Wide Shut, the Stanley Kubrick film, because she had read about it and was fascinated by it. We all thought, “This is so interesting. I hope I’m like that when I’m her age, if I’m lucky enough to reach the age of 95.” She’s still really engaged and curious about the world, and Irja was too. Irja was really more of the activist of the two. There's a scene where she’s registering residents to vote and making sure the staff is registered. That was more Irja’s wheelhouse, the activism and the politics. Lucille would do that stuff in her younger years—she was very politically oriented, but she wasn’t an organizer or an activist. And because she was there when she was 95, it took a lot of energy for her to go out to the protests. But she was very engaged and wanted to talk about everything under the sun, especially politics.

Did the film's focus shift over the course of production, or were you able to stick to the original plan?
We shot on-and-off for quite a while, but we did a lot of intensive shooting for about two to three weeks over one summer. But when Lucille and Irja moved in, that’s when the focus really changed. We wanted to give you a sense of their lives at Sunset Hall, for one, and we were also trying to do an observational film about their friendship: the idea of what it means to grow old and find connection and meaning late in life. My partners, Caroline Libresco and Eden Wurmfeld, and I thought they represented this model of growing old while staying young at heart and staying serious and engaged in the world. And we didn’t have to manipulate much to show that—it was just figuring out the scenes we needed. For example, we took them to get their nails done. Now, that’s not something they’d do all the time, but we took them to do that because it was a way for them to be together. We discovered very early on that they would have great conversations in the backseat of the car, so we decided to film them quite a bit in the car where we would ask them questions and they would bring things up.

Then life intervenes, and Lucille discovers she had cancer. We didn’t know that was going to happen. I mean, I think we knew that was a possibility, that one of them could get sick or one of them could die. I mean, we certainly weren’t hoping for that, but when that happened, it created a whole new dynamic between them. It changed the tenor of their relationship. They were there for each other, but it also put a strain on their relationship because Lucille tired easily and really didn’t feel well most of the time. That was hard for Irja. She worried about Lucille a lot, but I think she just missed her, because Lucille sort of receded into her room.

Documentaries are inherently intrusive and voyeuristic. How do you keep that in check when you're inserting yourself into this extremely personal and sensitive time in these women’s lives, especially when one of them is on the verge of death?
That’s a good question. It’s tricky, right? We had conversations with Lucille where we were very direct with her. We were like, “We would like to keep following you and filming this part of your life. Are you okay with that?" And she was fine with it. We were just trying to be respectful. As I said, I do think that we had established a foundation of trust with her. We also took care of her a lot: we’d bring her soup and take her to her doctor's appointment. That wasn’t just for the filming. That was because she became our friend, you know? I think those things kind of merged, and that happens sometimes with documentary filmmakers and their subjects. With those relationships, there’s a lot of grey areas. We always told her if she we wanted us to stop filming, we would. She was game. Both she and Irja enjoyed being part of the making of the film, and they felt engaged in it.

Lucille was really savvy and smart. She had a great sense of story and knew this was the inevitable storyline in the film. She was very generous with us and revealed a lot in those later days. But I think we had an open enough relationship. And as you saw in the film, she was very direct. We knew she would tell us the truth. She would tell us if she had enough, if she was too tired. I think documentaries are only as good as the relationships that allow them to be made. It’s why, when you see a news show about a character, by it’s very nature, it’s going to feel very superficial. But if you watch a documentary about someone, and that filmmaker put in the hours of building trust and getting to know someone and just spending a lot of time with that person, you’re going to get richer things. I think it was a relationship that worked both ways: it worked for us and it worked for them, and we both got things in return.

While the initial draw of the film is this intriguing idea of these seniors engaging in political activism, the intimacy of their relationship seems to play a much more important role as it progresses. In your mind, what is this film really about at its core?
It’s a film that makes you think differently about growing old, it gives you an alternate viewpoint. I mean, more people are just afraid of it and find it depressing. As you see them going out to demonstrations and registering their fellow residents to vote and debating everything possible, I think that starts to really resonate. Their engagement and curiosity and compassion keeps them young. I don’t think we’re trying to sugarcoat anything because obviously there are very sad moments in the film but I think that Lucille and Irja are very true to themselves. I really appreciate that. They’re not trying to please anyone else. They’re living their lives very authentically and in a very real way, and they’re very open-minded people. I do think it’s about finding meaning in old age.

What did you take away from this experience, whether as a filmmaker, woman, or just as a person?
That’s a really good question. Oh boy.I’d go back to what I said before: that the keys to having a meaningful life is to stay engaged and be curious about the world, and keep learning and always want to be learning new things. One of the things that we noticed at Sunset Hall, which Lucille and Irja would complain about—I don’t think this actually made it into the film—but they would always say, “The men don’t talk, and all the women talk.” I do think there is something that keeps you vital and young if you’re communicative and you process and engage with people and you build relationships. That may be a very generational thing, but it was kind of exciting for us to imagine, “Wow, you could meet your best friend when you’re 83 or 95.”They're just incredible role models in terms of creating a meaningful life in your later years. And that doesn’t mean doing huge, heroic things. It's just staying involved.

What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?
Obviously we have a huge crisis—we have baby boomers aging and we’re not sure how that’s all going to work in our healthcare system. The idea of communal living when you get older and shared resources is a really interesting idea. There’s a lot of stuff being written about intentional communities for people who are not elderly. I can imagine living in some type of communal situation with people I share values with and enjoy being with, and with whom I'm engaged and challenged. It's an interesting thing for people to think about: how they want to grow old. How do they imagine that? We’re so afraid of aging and death in our society. I think it’s something to really embrace and have a vision for, or help your parents have a vision for themselves. Talk to them about it, be open, and really communicate about growing old and dying and what we all want from that experience. The other thing is that they are two very entertaining women. It’s fun to see them together. I think it’s entertaining to look at the way they interact and rib each other and get frustrated with each other. It’s an odd-couple story, but there’s a lot of tenderness there, too.

How do you envision the film being used as a teaching tool?
It gets sold to social work programs and gerontology programs; I wish I actually knew how it's used in those classes. In more of a general way, Lucille and Irja are great role models for aging and finding meaning later in life. I think it’s a film that works for general audiences because we’re all going to get old, none of us can avoid that. It can’t help but make you think about that, or if you’re a college student, think about your parents or grandparents, and how you guide and encourage them to find something they’re passionate about later in life.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Laura where we discuss her advice for young filmmakers, the current state of documentaries and next projects. 

Sean Steinberg is a graduate of the University of Miami (Class of 2015). He now lives in Los Angeles where he's pursuing a career in screenwriting and journalism. As a political reporter for WhoWhatWhy, he covers issues concerning voting rights and election integrity. When he's not taking himself too seriously, he's making an idiot of himself on stage testing the waters of stand-up comedy.