Morgan Dews, Must Read After My Death
Good things can always be salvaged from even the worst of circumstances, and that has seldom been more true than in the case of documentarian Morgan Dews. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1968 after his mother had run away from a troubled family situation to get married. He grew up oblivious to the difficult circumstances from which his mother had escaped, and then attended Rutgers University, where he studied History, graduating in 1990. Subsequently, he decamped to Spain where he became active in numerous and wide-ranging creative pursuits: he founded the arts magazine Snack and the performance space The Banana Factory, was a member of the electronica band Easy (for whom he also directed music videos), and worked in multiple capacities on commercials. In addition, he also acted, wrote poetry, journalism and short stories, and created installations, for which he won the Moebius Interactive Art Prize. In 2005, after Dews moved back to the U.S., his short film Elke’s Visit premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Dews’ debut feature, Must Read After My Death, is an intensely personal film and joins a growing subgenre of documentaries which reveal the hidden stories of supposedly normal, happy families. Following the death of his grandmother Allis in 2001, Dews discovered that she had left behind a stash of audio tapes, plus notebooks and home movies, which documented in shocking detail the relationship between Allis and Dews’ grandfather Charley, and the devastating effect it had on the whole family. Must Read After My Death attempts the difficult task of creating a narrative from the hundreds of hours of audio tapes, with photographs and home movies providing a visual counterpoint; there are no voice-overs or talking head interviews, and Dews uses just a handful of captions. The result is a spare, taut piece of filmmaking which is utterly gripping throughout, and remarkably moving given the restrictions of its form. Despite his personal ties to the film’s subjects, Dews commendably absents himself from proceedings, and neither sentimentalizes their situation nor holds back from depicting the tough truths of what transpired.
Filmmaker spoke to Dews about the discovery of this dark period of his family history, how he approached making such a personal film, and his love of the original Miracle on 34th Street.
Filmmaker: In a way, this film began with the death of your grandmother Allis, who you were very close with.
Dews: Yes, we were kind of each other’s favorite. I was her first grandson and we were really close. I spent a couple of summers with her, I traveled in Europe with her when I was 17, and I saw quite a bit of her and talked to her quite a bit. We could talk about anything. So when she died, I actually got all the [family home movies] that I made the film out of. I had grown up playing with them, using the projector that Charley had, which still works to this day. It was one of these chain-driven old Bell and Howells that almost never break. I actually grew up watching them because as nobody would ever talk about that period of family life, it was sort of the only way I had of having any connection with that. It’s great to see your parents as children, your grandparents as adults. It’s a kind of magical time machine, as a kid.
Filmmaker: It was the audio tapes that were real revelation, though.
Dews: I found out about the tapes by chance. I was with my uncle’s ex-wife and we were talking and she just asked very off-hand if I was using these audio tapes. I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Oh, my God, there are these audio tapes. You must know about them. Allis would drive around in the car talking and turn [the recorder] on surreptitiously in the dining room and make these crazy tapes.” So I called my family and said, “Hey, is that box of tapes what she’s talking about?” I had suspected that those were just jazz recordings. So I got them all and I just put them onto my computer over Thanksgiving week – all 50 hours. I didn’t listen to them, just put them on and then I started listening once I got home. Then I realized it was a very special private archive that could be a really amazing film.
Filmmaker: Do you think that it was Allis’ intention to have this information widely disseminated, at least within the family?
Dews: I didn’t know at the beginning. I spent two years working on the film until I found the file [marked “Must Read After My Death”] which the film is named after. I was talking to my family every week, talking to everybody about what I was doing and begging them for more information. Finally, I got in touch with Allis’ dear friend and secretary of 25 years. I asked her, “Do you have any more information?” and she said, “I don’t have any more films or tapes, but there is this file. I think your mom or one of your uncles has it. It was that thing they were supposed to read after she died.” It makes for really miserable reading. It’s worse than the tapes because it’s all very grim. In a way, it’s like a case file from a Hoover-era federal case against somebody. “7 a.m.: Woke up, made eggs. 7:45 Charley said this…” She had spent the last 30 years of her life tidying up and organizing things, so it was certainly not an accident that [these materials] were still around.
Filmmaker: What was the dynamic within the family in response to you making this film and making this story public?
Dews: First of all, I made copies of the tapes for everybody, but nobody wanted to listen to anything. Then I said, “This is amazing, I’m going to make a film out of this and I need you guys to sign releases and give your permission. Or not, if you decide that’s OK.” All of them said, “No, we’re not going to sign the release. But you can make the film, and if we’re OK with it then that will be fine.” They said to me, “Look, you’ve got to understand this is the worst moments of the worst decade of our lives and we don’t even know what’s in there because we can’t even bear to even listen to it. And we don’t know w hat you’re going to do with it. As much as we love you, we’re just not ready for that. So go ahead and make the film and then we’ll say if it’s OK or not.”
Filmmaker: Did the need to make something that would be acceptable to your family inhibit you creatively while making the film?
Dews: I don’t think so. I think I was very true to the story, but also it made me work really hard to include my family in every step that I made, to keep them up to date with what I was thinking about, with what I was using, so that they weren’t going to be so shocked when they saw it. Looking at it now, there’s a lot of more explicit stuff about the infidelity that I just didn’t feel that it added to the story. It was just a question of adding the right amount of everything, so I don’t think there’s anything I did that I would go back on.
Filmmaker: If this had been someone else’s family history you’d been telling, would you have approached it differently?
Dews: My modus operandi was to try and pretend that it was a different family, that it was someone else’s stuff that I had found and that I randomly had some kind of opportunity to convince the family to let me use it. Obviously, you’re in a position where you would never get access to this material if it wasn’t yours – nobody would ever allow you to listen to it much less publicize it if it wasn’t yours – but you have to treat it as if they’re just characters in a movie if you’re going to make a movie. Otherwise you’d make to crazy paean to the thing that you love about your family, and I really didn’t want to do that, so I was just trying to imagine it was just fictional characters. I was trying to tell their story and do away with the stories that I might have wanted to tell about my family because my voice wasn’t as compelling as these voices from beyond the grave.
Filmmaker: Your voice is, in fact, totally absent from the film. Conventionally, we would have a director’s voice-over, on-camera investigation, talking head interviews with the family, etc.
Dews: I tried some of that. I interviewed my mom, and then I looked at the tapes and it was so much less powerful than the actual [experience that] puts you in the living room that really works about the film. So I started rejecting that, and when I first started pitching it to television (which was probably a big mistake), people were after me, [saying] “This is your story, it’s about you finding it, it’s about how this affects you and your relationship with your family.” I just thought, “Guys, you don’t know what I have in this box.” That could have been a thing, but I just felt that when you have this first-hand material of these moments unfolding at the time, you can construct a very dramatic narrative that just puts the viewer in the space. And then instead of telling stories about it, you’re dramatically in these scenes. It just seems much more powerful to do it that way.
Filmmaker: The film is incredibly compelling because it’s almost like a recreation of the experience you had of listening to these audio tapes for the first time.
Dews: That’s exactly what I was thinking: “This is such an amazing experience I’m going through – why not provide that for people?” I’m now having fun with the DVD extras because I’m going to be able to put more raw material in there and leave tapes and films so that people can really see it unadulterated. I really was so fascinated by that experience of putting together that narrative, but also a million other narratives that I came across. It was just so compelling and fascinating being there and trying to piece things together, trying to figure out what it means. It’s like a mystery.
Filmmaker: In theory, it seems impossible that this film should work, as it functions in this very narrow, minimal scope and is very claustrophobic, yet it is never anything but completely gripping. How long did it take to hone the film in the editing room?
Dews: It was two and a half years of every day looking at this stuff. I did a lot of weird things: I watched Grizzly Man with the sound off and took notes on the structure of it, I bought a Syd Field basic screenwriting book just to see how the three act dramatic structure works, and a lot of the cues came from the fact that Allis and everyone else in family tends to speak continually forever without a single let-up. I think that way people can’t get away – you grab them and you don’t even shut up. I heard that in these tapes and that sort of breathlessness seemed to work. I agonized over everything. I was very concerned that people would get tired of that if I didn’t squeeze it all out in one breath. And it seems to work, so I will say that it’s just a lot of trial and error and a lot of testing.
Filmmaker: The soundtracks holds everything together really well and, like the best soundtracks, is much more subliminal rather than noticeable.
Dews: Honestly, I had a second chance to do [the soundtrack] when Gigantic Releasing came on board. I started working with an aggressive electronic soundtrack, moody, melancholic bloopy stuff, and it really was right up in your face. Then I took it to festivals with that soundtrack – and argued with audiences about it continually. In Amsterdam, somebody said, “It’s an amazing film but I just hated the music.” I said, “Well, how many of you hated the music?” and half the people raised their hands. I said, “Well, how many of you really liked the music?” and ten people raised their hands. I didn’t know what to do and finally said, “Look, I don’t have the money to do it again, so I won’t. Screw it.” And then when Gigantic came on, they gave me the chance to do it with Paul Hogan, who’s in this amazing band called Frances. It’s much more appropriate, this neo-folk, as at the time this is happening my uncles were hanging out in cafes listening to and playing folk music. In a way, my whole process is trying things out, learning from my mistakes.
Filmmaker: There’s a documentary subgenre that’s developed of the family exposé, with films like Capturing the Friedmans and 51 Birch Street. Did you watch those films at all and pay attention to how they tackled similar territory?
Dews: It’s funny, I totally did. I saw Tarnation, Capturing the Friedmans, and 51 Birch Street in the theater as soon as they came out. But I’d already become very stubborn about my ideas, so each time I walked out very disappointed there was nothing I could really steal from these films. I took this to the Sundance Producers Conference in 2006 and I met somebody there who said, “This is going to become a whole new genre,” and he was calling it “the accidental documentary,” where somebody just records oodles of footage, puts it in a box and doesn’t worry about. But then later, further down the road, somebody picks that up. I think it’s an exploding phenomenon. Some people have their video cameras running when crazy shit is going on and do it almost as a defense mechanism to isolate themselves against this trauma.
Filmmaker: If the world ended tomorrow, what (if anything) would you be sad about that you hadn’t achieved?
Dews: Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. If you got me next week, I might say something different. [laughs] Maybe five or ten years it was different, but now I can look back and say I’ve premiered at a top festival, have a really great friends, been in love three or four times. What else do you want? It’s a good run so far.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Dews: I remember being a child and being excited every year that Miracle on 34th Street would be playing. I would go with that one, though I’m sure it’d not true. I have such a terrible memory.
Filmmaker: Is Hollywood going in the right direction?
Dews: I think it’s always going in the right direction: every direction at once. I love Hollywood films, I really do. I think action films are maybe my favorite genre if they’re done right. When I go to the cinema, I go to buy popcorn, though the last film I saw was Frozen River. But that was only because Coraline was sold out. [laughs]