"Break Your Own Dreams": Ebersole & Hughes on 'Mansfield 66/67'
P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes delight in the slippery nature of truth in their documentary filmmaking. Like Jayne Mansfield herself, the moment you think you can pin them down, they've already danced away to another possibility.
Directors P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes' Mansfield 66/67 (2017) is the sophomore feature documentary following 2011's Hit So Hard, about Hole drummer Patty Schemel. Previously the directors had worked in narrative fiction, and between their explorations of an American drummer and a Hollywood star, they directed the television documentary Dear Mum, Love Cher (2013) and four episodes of Vintage Los Angeles TV (2014-15). Their producing credits also include the divisive Room 237 (2012) that explores readings of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) that have left the film shrouded with unanswered questions.
Seen as the replacement of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield was for a brief spell one of Hollywood's biggest stars, but whose personal life engulfed her onscreen career. A tale of alcohol and drugs and a relationship with Anton LaVey, the charismatic leader of the Church of Satan, Ebersole and Hughes' film is a deliriously fevered account of the final two years in the life of the fallen movie star, who died in a fatal car crash in 1967.
In conversation with PopMatters in August of 2017, around the film's UK Premiere at London FrightFest, Ebersole and Hughes discuss how the identity of the film star has transformed, and how Mansfield contrasts to contemporary stardom. They also reflect on the absence of truth in documentary filmmaking, the influence of Room 237 on Mansfield 66/67, and the loss of mystery and the need to forget the past in the filmmaking process.
Having transitioned from narrative to documentary, how has your perspective of the filmmaking process changed?
Todd Hughes (TH): Well, you certainly learn that on the one hand there's no mystery to it; there's no great something that happens and suddenly you are anointed, and you can make films. Anyone can do it, and you know we have gone through phases where we have tried really hard to fit in, to be commercial, and you just get slapped in the face for not being passionate and sincere. So then you are not passionate and sincere, and you get slapped in the face for not doing something commercial.
For instance, this Jayne Mansfield project was originally a narrative script. There was a point when we started writing together and we wrote this romantic comedy spec in the wake of My Best Friend's Wedding (1997). Overnight we had producers and top agents who said: "Now you are romantic comedy writers, that's what you do." And we said: "But we have these independent..." to which they told us: "No, no, no, we don't like that word. Don't tell us about your independent films or anything else, you are writing romantic comedies." So we spent a year pitching because you write a spec and then you pitch, then you write a spec, and unfortunately our spec was the Jayne Mansfield Anton LaVey story. We thought it was a very good romantic comedy -- and they fired us.
P. David Ebersole (PDE): I came out of film school kind of a star. I had won best film at NYU and best film at the AFI, and I think that I thought my trajectory was going to be becoming one of those anointed independent filmmakers; somehow the path is just different. We ended up making our own movies and having fun doing it, and we moved into documentary in 2011 completely by accident.
Our neighbour and good friend, Patty Schemel, was the drummer of Hole, but we didn't know that she had gone all the way to the point of homelessness on the streets, and that she had shot 40-hours of never before seen footage of being on tour, and was living with Kurt [Cobain] and Courtney [Love]. She brought over the footage one summer when we were between jobs, and asked us if we could help her transfer it to a more stable format because it was all shot on High 8 video. We were just transferring it when we realised what a great story was inside of the footage, and she asked us if we would make the movie. We said: "Well, I guess we could do a documentary; why not!" And we have been on that path ever since.
So once you're out there doing it, then it kind of finds you, and you don't have to search for it so hard.
TH: And with a documentary it is a lot like writing; you'e not waiting for someone to give you permission or to bank roll it.
One of the intriguing contrasts to my mind is that of the actor to the star. But specifically on the subject of the latter, do you perceive there to have been an evolution in the way movie stars are defined then to now?
PDE: Yeah, I have always said that there is a difference. Actors can get lost in roles and become different to who they are; they can play all sorts of different parts. Jayne Mansfield created this persona which she then exploited, and what then happens is they get trapped by and want to get on the outside of it. I think that's what has happened from the old to the modern days, though they may not have been thrilled to be pigeon-holed as say, Bette Davis, and that these are the kinds of movies that you make. But they understood that was what they were there for and what the cinema was doing for them.
Somebody like Jayne Mansfield was obviously on the path to becoming the replacement for Marilyn Monroe, the bombshell, and she revelled in it. She's interesting because she was one of the first to decide to do this whole thing of living in public, and that's actually what a lot of todays stars do so much more of; they want you to know that they are real people and that they have their own life. Whereas back then all of that was suppose to be hidden and as the audience, you were suppose to only see the image that you were being presented with. They would construct everything that you saw -- dates they went on and public appearances. Anything they did was all inside of the persona of the star, and then anything that they did privately was offscreen, tucked away in a Beverly Hills house.
Suddenly, Jayne started to sell herself as a living creature outside of the movies. She was everywhere, doing everything and living her life. So she was a bit of a crosser in that she was right in-between the two.
Photo by Kahloon Loke (courtesy of PeccadilloPictures)
TH: I just finished reading Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud (by Shaun Considine, 1989 / Graymalkin Media, 2017). Bette Davis was the quintessential actor and Joan Crawford was the quintessential movie star. They hated each other because Bette always envied her beauty, and Joan always envied her talents, but they admitted that there was a need for both of them. I think the difference between then and now is that Joan Crawford and Jayne Mansfield -- they worked hard. They took this business of being a movie star very seriously; they didn't take it for granted. They worked hard to keep their fans interested and happy. You think of Marilyn Monroe, who is much more like a modern star: Don't bother me, I've got it, but I'm not going to work. Yeah, reluctance, like you just feel Kristen Stewart can't be bothered right? She can barely comb her hair to get up [laughs].
So the transition of the movie star is one from dream to realism?
PDE: Into something that's more real and I think that's true about what movies themselves are for the public as well, which is that they used to be this escape. World War II and all these other things were happening that you wanted to go to the cinema to escape from it.
Now it's funny because I'm with the PGA (Producers Guild of America), we get screeners at the end of the year. We put them in one after another, but Christ, these movies are so miserable. What they're about and what's happening, everything is so sad and terrible. People are raped and their lives are destroyed, and this is what we are watching onscreen. It's the reverse of an escape, it's like it's a delving in to help you to understand your own psyche better. Movies were once just this way of getting into a completely different world, a fantastic journey, and even in the more dramatic tougher more exciting movies, people still woke up with perfect make-up [laughs].
Photo by Kahloon Loke (courtesy of PeccadilloPictures)
Within Buddhism is the idea that there is no such thing as truth, which is logical if we consider the identity of the world is defined by human perspective. As human beings, we often play characters, the identity we project dependent on our surroundings. Someone remarked to me recently that there may not even be a core, but each person is just a movement between personas. In this film you explore the different sides of Mansfield's identity, which is a fundamental idea that connects us all as human beings.
TH: Well, something we took away from Room 237 was Rodney Ascher and Tim Kirk's whole idea of no talking heads. You don't know who these people are that you're listening to. You don't know if they're in a straitjacket; you're just hearing the power of their rhetoric. They can convince you, and we backed it up with visuals to say: Hey, they might not be too far off.
But with Jayne and Anton, the truth was very elusive and what historian Barbara Hahn brought to us was that all of history, you take what is documented, and the empirical truth you can't argue with. Then you've got to use your imagination to make up the rest, and then once that's printed it's one more level closer to the truth that was never there to begin with. But you're starting to build that truth, and so early on, especially when we realised that we were going to try to get Jayne's daughter Mariska [Hargitay], and Zeena LaVey, Anton's daughter in the same room to talk about it. But we thought: That's just stupid because they were little kids; they don't know anything except what we know and what they've grown up with.
PDE: Perhaps to filter it one more time, because as family they are close to it. So what have they been told is "truth", but what have they filtered out, or what has been filtered out for them? It's another interesting layer, I suppose,that we could have gone into.
We call the movie a true story based on rumour and hearsay for precisely the reason that it's all from public record. But again, we were fascinated with this idea in Room 237, and it's in this that the audience ends up creating their own truth. We carry the legend; we have made up the story for Jayne Mansfield and Anton LaVey. Which parts are true or not, which parts of them are more fantastic to believe even though they are not true, and which ones are the more satisfying for us to hang onto instead of finding out the truth? So yeah, we'd much rather believe in these things that we have built for ourselves and myth comes out of that.
The intrigue with Room 237 are the errors pointed out with a filmmaker who was a perfectionist.
PDE: So why would he leave an error in the film?
It's a contradiction to what we know of Kubrick the filmmaker, and yet as an audience, I believe we enjoy those lingering questions. Films such as Room 237 and Mansfield 66/67 tap into our love of mystery and curiosity.
PDE: And we went after that with Mansfield, and we joke about this, but what were we going to do, interview Mariska and say it's not true, and then our movie would be over... the end? [laughs] It's more fun to revel in the possibilities of the myth and the legend than it is to say it's true or not.
TH: Leon Vitali, who was Kubrick's right hand man, came out against Room 237. At some point he did a press conference and said the movie was complete bullshit. One example was the Apollo sweater, which they just grabbed out of a box and threw it on the kid, and so that's all bullshit. And you think: Well he should know, he was there. I don't trust him; it's just too unbelievable that...
PDE: Kubrick, who makes people take a certain amount of steps to be able to get to the door, would say: "Oh just throw a sweater on the kid." And the carpet pattern would actually match the pattern of the Apollo launching station [laughs].
TH: The guy worked with him and was his good friend. It might be true, but like you said, then the story is over and it's all a bunch of bullshit. In Cannes there was a guy who said: "I was an extra on Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Kubrick would make us do the most peculiar things. We could only take so many steps and things that no one understood why we were doing them." This then makes you think: Oh well, everything was calculated.
The purist opinion of documentary as objective is built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film, to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective.
PDE: The concept that documentary is truth is ridiculous. There's no possible way that there's even a concept of truth. You can present certain things that I guess are facts, but even in the way you present those, you are colouring them when you put an image up against what somebody says, and changing the way that an audience will receive that idea. So 100 percent a documentary gets filtered through the people who make it, and it changes anything that's said.
It's the same as telling a story at a party or telling a news event that happened, and we live in this strange dystopian universe called the United States of America, led by somebody named Donald Trump. You watch one news station that tells you one truth, and you watch another news station that tells you another truth. That whole idea that he's created alternative facts, it's the world that we are living in. But you watch it from one perspective and you think, how is it possible to think that? And they must look at us and just think that we are insane for thinking that he needs to be impeached. The concept of truth, of presentation... is what documentaries are often about.
TH: We also like entertaining movies and so there does come a point where we are: It's true, but it has got to go. We have got to keep it going here.
PDE: Another thing I think we struggle with as documentary filmmakers is that we come from narrative, and we still enjoy entertaining. One of the great compliments we receive is that our documentaries are so entertaining, and that people have such a good time watching them. My mother keeps coining the term 'date doc'. She keeps saying: "You guys make date docs." Go with your date and you'd have fun, and you'd have something to talk about afterwards [laughs], instead of the idea that you go to a documentary like you go to school to learn something, and it's dry information.
Speaking with Alice Lowe for Prevenge (2016), on the subject of the edit she said: "…there was a wobble point as there is with every film. It's where you've maybe got a bit oversaturated and you're: What's the film again? I can't remember. You lose trust in your original vision a little bit … I think you just have to push through this point and I have to remember that for the next time because in the edit you've got to make the film worse before you can make it better." Would you agree?
PDE: I come from post-production and it's my favourite part of the process. I do think there's a truth to that, where in post-production you have to be willing to confront what you actually have versus what you dreamt you might have. So it's the moment that you have to be willing to re-confront yourself and understand which parts of it were strengths and weaknesses. You may have thought you cast the best lead, but they turn out to be bad in their emotional moments, and now you have to hide them, bury them and do something else; use the other person.
There's so much you have to be willing to do -- some scene you are completely in love with that took forever to shoot, you have to be willing to axe. Things that were the reason you made the movie and especially sometimes in documentary, and here we were all into the idea of telling the history of satanic cinema. But it was stopping the movie cold, and so you have to be willing to say it has to go. So it's true that you have to break your own dreams of what you thought the movie was going to be, and confront what it actually is.
Then we would start protecting things for each other, which is a really weird moment. I would try to keep one of Todd's ideas in the movie, convincing the editors that it had to stay because I knew he liked it. And they were: "Todd already said it could go. It's his thing!" [Laughs]
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: "You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before." Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
PDE: Yeah, we became satanists through making this! [laughs]
TH: I think so, in that you can be modest, but then then you think: Wow, that was something. A film takes a long time and so when you finally get to that hurdle, and I remember when this one was finished, just feeling that we had done something so amazing and different. Of course we have cut it substantially since then; it was a lot more music and performance art, which people were not responding to. The more you do anything and the more confident you feel, then as I was saying, the less mystery there is about it.
PDE: You just hope that you don't go from being Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl (1968) to Barbara Streisand in Nuts (1987), like you have lost perspective of yourself. You started out being really fantastic and by doing all of the work you somehow lost perspective of what was great about you. So I think there's something where work and experience adds up and you have to give back the innocence, and forget a lot of what you know when you start a new project.
What do you hope the audience takes away from the experience of Mansfield 66/67?
TH: Well, hopefully a renewed interest in that whole time period. I would hope everyone goes and rents a Jayne Mansfield film or picks up a satanic bible just to see what it's about. It's so interesting that with kids these days that they just don't seem to care at all about what has preceded them. I think we did a good job of presenting something that's of worth and of doing more research on and knowing more about.
PDE: I dare anyone to watch this movie and not fall in love with Jayne Mansfield. So that's sort of what I hope people come away with. It's funny because it's a very gossipy and tawdry subject matter in the way that we present it, and yet it's extremely loving towards Jayne. So we fell in love with her and I hope by bringing her back alive in this way, 50 years after he death, people will rediscover her and realise what a fabulous creature she was. She's kind of a forgotten star in many ways and we hope that she gets rediscovered.
TH: And what would be the Academy Award for us is if her children do see it and secretly get back to us: You know what, I really enjoyed it. It was nice to see my mother presented as a hero, not a victim.
P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes (photo coutesy of Porter Frith Ltd.)
Mansfield 66/67 screens at select UK theatres from 11 May – 25 June 2018 and is released on DVD on 25 June by Peccadillo Pictures. For further information on where to see the film, click here.