For his latest film, a documentary titled The Kids Grow Up, acclaimed filmmaker Doug Block chose to turn the camera on his daughter Lucy. By weaving archival footage, on-camera present day life and heartbreak with humor, Block relives the first seventeen years of his daughter’s life before sending her off to college. This personal account of his daughter’s childhood translates into a universal story of modern-day parenting and learning to let go.
I had the opportunity to chat with Doug Block prior to the film’s opening this weekend at the Angelika, which was greatly received by The New York Times and The New York Daily News. Read the interview below and be sure to purchase your tickets to The Kids Grow Up HERE.
Congratulations on your film! The Kids Grow Up is a very intimate portrait of your family, how was the experience of watching the finished product with your daughter Lucy and wife Marjorie?
DB: Nerve wracking, because in both cases I needed to show them a rough cut much earlier than I would have wanted to in order to make sure they were okay with it. But I didn’t think either would have major problems with it and they didn’t. My wife just thought at first that it would take a long time for her to objectively be able to judge it.
What was Lucy’s reaction to the film?
DB: She had mixed feelings. On the one hand, she thinks it’s a really good film, and she’s a tough critic. But she’s a pretty normal kid with no desire to be the center of attention and certainly no desire to be famous on any level. It’s definitely helped a lot for her to be three years removed from the filming and to have gained some perspective from being older.
Has her life changed at all after screenings of the film?
DB: Not really. She spent last year doing her junior year abroad in Buenos Aires, so she missed almost our entire festival run. As for the theatrical release, which is just about to begin, I think she’s mostly trying to ignore it as best she can. Which is more than fine with me. I think that’s a very healthy attitude.
How much of the film was shaped around what Lucy and Marjorie felt comfortable with, how involved were they in the editing process?
DB: They weren’t involved at all in the editing process. But I made sure they saw both the rough and fine cuts before anyone else expressly to address any discomfort they might have had. Lucy is a bit mortified by one particular scene, but only asked me to change one shot and not the scene itself. Which I did. If they had seriously objected to anything it would have come out, no questions asked.
I also gave Lucy the chance to put the nix on the entire film once it was entirely shot but before I began raising money to edit it. When she returned for Christmas vacation her freshman year, I showed her 30 minutes of roughly assembled footage involving the most difficult and emotional scenes in the film and told her if she felt the film would seriously impact her life for the worse that now was the time to say no. I’d shelve it right then and there. She just said she thought it would be a good film and signed a release form. On the other hand, next to her signature she drew a picture of a pile of steaming poop and wrote “This is what I think of your film.”
Did “normal life” resume after the completion of The Kids Grow Up or do you find yourself still in documentary mode?
DB: Both, actually. Life continued pretty normally all during the making of The Kids. It’s not like I shot obsessively, maybe only 35 or 40 hours over the course of Lucy’s last year at home. The only difference was that Lucy left home for college in the middle of the process, and my wife and I had to deal with an empty nest. Now that was tough, every bit as tough as I’d anticipated.
You played three roles in this film: father, filmmaker and husband. What was that process like?
DB: Balancing these various roles gets to the very nature of making these kinds of personal films. Though I take my filmmaking very seriously, I always tried to be a father and husband first. Which meant if Lucy or Marjorie didn’t want me to shoot something, I didn’t shoot it. If they wanted me to put the camera down at any point, I put it down. And, once we were editing, if they had problems with any scenes, it was always grounds for discussion. But bottom line was that I’d never try to force anything over on them. They had to approve of everything, ultimately. And they did.
People often ask about including Marjorie’s episode of depression and whether or not that was too invasive. Shooting it was by the far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my professional life. But I was sure at the time, given how vocal and committed she’s always been to destigmatizing depression, that she would want it depicted. And it turns out she strongly wanted it to stay. It’s a very powerful section of the film and audiences admire her courage for showing that side of herself. In turn, she’s very proud of the matter-of-fact way the film deals with it. We both hope to do a lot of outreach to national organizations dealing with mental health, talks are already well underway. I’m not a social issue filmmaker, but I’m proud that the film, by quirk of fate, has the potential to make a significant impact on public perceptions.
Do you feel like you may have missed the actual experience of Lucy’s departure as a result of being behind the camera?
DB: Not really. I think it actually intensified the experience because I spent so much time thinking about it and observing it. I’m pretty focused when I get into shoot mode.
Have you seen any reactions from parents who have or are sending their children off to college?
DB: Yep, they get pretty emotional. But then it seems to be hitting everyone who’s been a parent hard, no matter what the age of their children. We sometimes have to practically peel moms and dads off the floor after screenings. What’s particularly gratifying, though, is that young people in their 20’s and 30’s who aren’t parents are appreciating the story from Lucy’s perspective, and bring to it all these emotions from their own experiences of having left home. So almost everyone sees something of their own story in it, no mater where they’re from. Leaving home and learning to let go are primal universal experiences.
Like The Kids Grow Up, your previous film 51 Birch Street was an intimate portrait of your family life. Do you anticipate covering other aspects of your family life or do you plan to shift the focus off of yourself in regards to future projects?
DB: My wife and I struggling with the empty nest is the leaping off point for my next film, a personal documentary about long-term marriage that I’m currently in the middle of shooting. But the film will mostly look outward. My own marriage frames the story but I’m not sure how major a role it will play. I’ll think a lot about it as I shoot, but will leave the final decision for the editing room. That’s the thrill of these kinds of films. They start out as one thing and always take on a life of their own once the ball gets rolling.