Inspiration in Squalor: How I "Rebuilt" Grey Gardens

Last weekend, I was at home in Los Angeles and got a call from Jessica Lange. "Michael, I can't find the house," she confessed. "I'm out in East Hampton with Sam, and I want to show him the garden, but I can't find the damn house!" She was referring to Grey Gardens, the former home of "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale, whom Jessica played in the recent film that I produced, co-wrote, and directed. I laughed, told Jessica where she had taken a wrong turn, and assured her that Big Edie would be pleased that she was checking up on things. I spent six years making Grey Gardens, and, although I'm thrilled with the results, I'm also glad I didn't know how long it was going to take when I first started...

Having grown up spending summers in Long Island, for years I was aware of the lore surrounding Jackie O's eccentric relatives living in squalor in their Long Island summer home, and had even biked past the house, but it wasn't until February 2003, a year after "Little Edie" (played in the film by Drew Barrymore) died, that I finally watched the Maysles' 1975 documentary for the first time.

The documentary lulled me into a kind of trance. Like so many other viewers before and after me, I couldn't turn away from this fascinating mother-daughter duo. The film had ended but the spell wasn't broken. I wanted more. I wanted to know how they fell from grace and why. There was another movie in just that story -- I knew it. I was inspired

I immediately re-watched the documentary, this time armed with a yellow legal pad on which I jotted dozens of questions: who was "Gould"? What happened to Mr. Beale? What about the sons, where did they go, and why didn't they help? Why did Edie come back from NYC, and how long was she gone? It was these questions and others that would form the basis of my extensive research.

I quickly exhausted the limits of the internet (at the time, there were only a few articles on GG, only a smattering of interviews with Edie and only one or two fan sites) and soon turned to library archives, digging through old microfilm and microfiche as well as books on the Bouvier family, but it was the discovery, by way of public records, of Little Edie's death certificate that lead to the real jackpot.

Through Edie's estate attorney, I tracked down her nephew, Bouvier Beale, to whom I wrote a passionate letter about my plans for a biopic about his aunt and grandmother and why I was the man to tell it. Bouv, in turn, referred me to his then sister-in-law, Pamela Beale, as she had recently unearthed a cardboard box containing years of Edie's journals, piles of her poetry, scores of family photographs, and dozens of typed and hand-written letters including correspondence between her mother and her father, between Gould and Edie, and between her cousin Jackie and Edie's brothers, as well as a first-hand description of how Big Edie had decorated Grey Gardens in its heyday. I flipped out. This was a truly incredible find. I now had access to Edie's most inner thoughts!

After an initial meeting with Pam in Los Angeles, I packed up my life and headed north to San Francisco for the summer where the descendants now lived and where Edie's papers were being sorted. I hadn't yet worked out a formal agreement with the family and was, therefore, unable to remove any of the papers from the archives. So by day, I would dictate certain diary entries, letters, or poems into a tape recorder and then faithfully transcribe them by night.

One of the most stunning discoveries that I made while pouring through Edie's papers was an affair she had with a married man. The name "Cap" appeared in many places such as in a short poem in which she wrote, "Ah, my angel, Cap. I won the thorn but not the rose," along with a death date: March 26, 1970. When interviewing a friend of the Beales' deceased attorney, I inquired about this mysterious "Cap." This person said that it could perhaps be a man named Julius Krug. I searched online and was directed to the historical website for the Truman administration. Matching the death date in the poem with that of one of Truman's cabinet members, I discovered that Edie had carried on an affair with the former Secretary of the Interior from about 1948 to 1952! I knew this had to be part of the reason Edie was forced home by her mother. Big Edie refers to him in the documentary ("That married man was not going to give you any chance at all.") and Little Edie specifically cites July 29, 1952 as that day she "checked out, got on the train, came back, and was never able to get back [to New York.]" These letters, poems, and journals were becoming the Rosetta Stone to the mysteries of what happened to the Beales. I was committed to uncovering their story and weaving it into a narrative script.

Eventually, I worked out a life-rights agreement with the heirs to exclusively option Edie's archives and then spent the next month or so interviewing other family and friends (including a cherished "pen-pal" relationship with Little Edie's elderly, best childhood friend, Eleanor, and Big Edie's friends Lois and Doris), all of whose anecdotes became extraordinarily helpful in painting a picture of their lives both before and after the Maysles shot their documentary.

While I had considered optioning the rights to the documentary, I didn't have the requisite funds, nor the clout to do so, so I was determined to write a script that didn't structurally or dramatically hinge on the documentary. A few months into actually writing the script for Grey Gardens, I learned of plans to make the documentary into a Broadway musical. Panic set in. How could two people more or less simultaneously have the idea to re-imagine a 30-year old cult film? Once the fear subsided, I realized that there was "enough story to go around" and decided to just keep my nose to the grindstone and work on my version of the story.

Upon returning from San Francisco, another kind of panic set it -- financial. I was pretty much hemorrhaging money not having worked all summer save some odd jobs cobbled together from friends and acquaintances; commercial directing had slowed down to a mere trickle, and freelance production jobs offered no security. Forced to face reality, I took a position working for an entertainment attorney. The hours were predictable, the pay was stable, and the job offered much needed health insurance, which allowed me to have the peace of mind not to fret about making the rent each month and the opportunity to concentrate on writing my script. Every morning I would wake up at 5am, write for three hours, then head to my "day job." Since being lucid at such an early hour was important, I skipped the Hollywood nightlife and just worked and worked and worked.

In early summer 2005, a script for Grey Gardens was ready to make the rounds (I think the very first draft had been some 203 pages -- over-length by about 40-50%. This one was the appropriate 105-120 pages.) With a quirky, renowned, illuminating, dark, inspiring, and captivating story, the script, luckily, immediately became a "hot summer read." Soon I was sheepishly making excuses to my boss about why I needed a two-hour lunch or why I had been in the conference room on my cell phone for thirty minutes and not answering his calls. It was everything I had wanted to happen, but a surprise, nonetheless. My producer warned me that things were happening "lightning fast" by Hollywood standards and not to expect things to necessarily continue at this pace.

Jessica Lange agreed to play the role of the reclusive mother, Big Edie, and several months later, Drew Barrymore signed on to play her daughter, Little Edie. With two amazing producers, Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Rachael Horovitz, at my side, a front-page announcement in Variety (February 21, 2006), the rights to the documentary now under option in addition to the life-rights, and with me attached to direct, it was time to seek financing.

HBO, excited by the subject matter and the casting, stepped up. While we were all set to begin shooting that fall, HBO wanted to do further script development both to hone the scope of the story and to whittle down the budget (which is when co-writer Patricia Rozema was brought on), so instead of shooting that fall, it wasn't until late October 2007 that principle photography finally began in Canada.

In the intervening year, I intermittently rewrote, supervised rewrites, worked with the prosthetic designer on perfecting the old-age make-ups (both Edies age 40 years in the film), and built a virtual replica of the house using the original blue prints for Grey Gardens and a computer architectural program -- all of which was enormously helpful as the official "prep" for the film was eventually a mere seven weeks. The film wrapped just before Christmas 2007 on-time and under-budget. Post-production concluded late the following year, and Grey Gardens debuted on HBO to great acclaim in April 2009, just over six years from my initial conception -- truly a passion project through and through. This summer, the project will reach completion when the Grey Gardens DVD is released on July 14th.

"Anything worth anything is difficult to achieve," my father used to say in an effort to keep me motivated as a kid when frustration would set in. Looking back on the six years that it took for me to make Grey Gardens, I know now that his advice sunk in because I never gave up. Making a movie takes a lot of things: money, talent, timing, luck, and most of all -- patience. There were many, many times when I thought that the project would fall apart, and if it had, I feared I would, too. As much influence as a director has on a movie, there's still so much he can't control. Ultimately, things happened in the right order and on their own schedule.

Tomorrow Jessica Lange and I will be in Sicily where Grey Gardens will be screened at the Taormina Film Festival. It's funny how the "recluses" are getting to travel these days. "Sapphire," Big Edie might call the color of the Mediterranean Sea, which the beautiful outdoor amphitheater in Taormina overlooks. Edie would probably warn us against the advances of Italian men with a flirtatious glint her eye. Making Grey Gardens has truly been the most wonderful experience of my life. I was asked recently what would be my dream project. I paused and then answered, "Honestly? I already made it..."