“Cardboard Cutouts Don’t Grow Old, They Don’t Die”: Jan Oxenberg on Criterion’s Rerelease of Her “Docu-fantasy” Thank You and Good Night
Jan Oxenberg was a thorn in the nonfiction establishment’s side long before hybrid doc-making was a thing (or even a term). Case in point: Her feature-length (Sundance ’91) debut Thank You and Good Night, a restoration of which will hit the Criterion Channel this week (along with two of the queer pioneer’s earlier shorts, 1973’s Home Movie and 1975’s A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts, accompanied by a new director’s intro).
Though Thank You and Good Night has been described as a “docu-fantasy” it’s also a very real time capsule of sorts. The film takes as its starting point the looming death of Oxenberg’s grandmother, which prompts the radical filmmaker (who has since, counterintuitively, become an established writer/producer for mainstream TV) to pick up her camera and record as much as she can in a race to the inevitable end. That includes no nonsense interviews and daily interactions with her mother and siblings, a cousin, even some of her grandmother’s friends – who together form a beautifully sad and unexpectedly funny, Borscht Belt-infused mosaic of NY secular Jewish life.
Which brings us to the “fantasy” portion of the “documentary” – embodied (?) by the film’s narrator and spiritual guide. Who happens to be a cardboard cutout named Scowling Jan, the director’s five-year-old self. This alter ego Jan, in turn, is joined by other surprisingly poignant cardboard cutouts on a cinematic journey to make sense of love, loss, and, as Roger Ebert would have it, “life itself.”
Fortunately, Filmmaker got the chance to catch up with Oxenberg a week prior to the restoration’s release to discuss birthing this boundary-busting artwork (with a “scrappy” crew that included producer James Schamus), continuing her indie filmmaking on the small screen, and facing the reality that death will never go out of style.
Filmmaker: The credits include many NYC names that would go on to shape independent filmmaking itself (starting most notably with producer James Schamus). Which made me quite curious to hear how this project came together. Was this just a scrappy group of friends donating their time and labor?
Oxenberg: Scrappy yes. And donating most definitely. I never intended to make a film about my grandmother. I did an audio interview with her when I learned she had cancer, just so I would have her voice on tape. She came alive. She was funny in a way my family hadn’t appreciated, I think.
One thing led to another. I filmed her birthday party. I had friends who had camera equipment. They did indeed donate their time and labor to film a few documentary scenes. But I didn’t have enough time with her, and I didn’t have enough footage of her. The process of filming mirrored the process of loss – not enough.
So I wrote a script around the documentary footage I did have. James got involved after the script was written. He is a genius. He saw something I had hidden from myself. That my film was as much about my sister’s death when we were children as it was about my grandmother’s death.
Filmmaker: You’ve had quite a long and eclectic career, one that started out as a queer pioneering activist artist, and has taken you more recently to producing and writing for mainstream TV (Pretty Little Liars, In Plain Sight, Cold Case, etc.). So what has that transition been like? Is television simply a way to make a living, or do you see it as a new “golden age” like so many do?
Oxenberg: Thank You and Good Night took 12 years, from the time I first interviewed my grandmother to the time I wrote the script, raised money to shoot a sample reel of scenes from the script, and then raised money to make a crazy movie about my grandmother dying of cancer starring cardboard cutouts, real people and actors.
Everyone liked what they saw but couldn’t believe it could actually work as a feature film. American Playhouse and POV finally took the chance and co-financed the film so it could be finished, with a real shoot and a real crew, who really got paid (very little I’m sure, but something).
When the film premiered at Sundance I was broke! Before the first screening finished I had a distribution offer, and an offer of representation from a Hollywood agency. I was living in Brooklyn. It really was astonishing that this strange film got the reaction it got.
Geena Davis saw it, loved it, and asked me to pitch an idea to her. She bought it, and suddenly I was writing a Hollywood movie for Geena Davis to star in and for me to direct. I thought, that was easy!
Now I don’t know how gender fits into all of this. As you may know, Geena is one of the greatest advocates for women in her organizing work, as well as in her acting career. But though a couple of smaller studios wanted to make our movie, Geena’s agents said, “Are you insane?” You’re going to make a movie with this cardboard cutout chick in Brooklyn? So that didn’t happen.
I got jobs writing movies, but nothing got made. I was extremely lucky to have been at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab with a script when Jason Katims and Matt Reeves were at the lab developing a movie that did get made — The Pallbearer with Miramax. They loved my film, which was shown at the lab. Jason was working on Winnie Holzman’s now classic TV show My So-Called Life. When that show ended Jason created his own show, Relativity, with Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (Thirtysomething) producing.
Ed was one of the, I don’t know, 15 people who had seen Thank You and Good Night when it played theatrically in Santa Monica. (I should ask him what made him go!) Anyway, they asked me to write for their show Relativity. I still thought I’d be a movie writer/director, but thank God I said yes.
In TV the writers are producers, the writers supervise the directors. As a writer you cast, you’re on set, you edit. It’s as close to being an independent filmmaker as you can get if you’re working with great people on a great show, which I was. And on many shows after that. I was lucky. I wrote about the subjects I had wanted to continue making movies about.
The script I had at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, Girlfriend Confidential, deals with a lesbian relationship, an abortion, female friendship. On Jason’s show Relativity I wrote the first lesbian kiss in primetime – six months before the Ellen coming out show. Lisa Edelstein played one of the main characters’ lesbian sister. I went on to write about abortion on the next show I worked on, ABC’s Nothing Sacred, which was created by an active Jesuit priest, Bill Cain. In the pilot he set up the church’s young secretary wanting to get an abortion. Bill asked me to write the episode. At one point during a conversation he said to me, “You’re just saying that because you’re a radical lesbian feminist and I’m a male Catholic priest!” We clashed at times. But we came up with a terrific episode about the conflict between a young radical priest and an older, more traditional priest, and the girl does get an abortion in the show. We later found out it was the first time a regular character on primetime network TV had gotten an abortion since an episode of Maude in the 1970’s. This was the late ’90’s! I saw it as a challenge to write about LGBT issues, abortion, feminism, as well as simple human drama on the shows I worked on. Now it’s commonplace. Now everyone wants to work in TV. As I said, I was very lucky.
Filmmaker: I’m also curious to hear about the restoration process. Whose idea was this and why now, nearly three decades after the film’s Sundance premiere?
Oxenberg: Remember this name: Sandra Schulberg! She created the Independent Feature Project, which really brought indie features into public consciousness, into distribution, into the mainstream.
Several years ago Sandra created IndieCollect to preserve and restore notable indie features from the ’90s and earlier that were shot on film, and had to be restored and transferred to 4K digital in order to be shown now. Sandra selected Thank You And Good Night (and my two short lesbian-themed films Home Movie and A Comedy In Six Unnatural Acts) to restore. She found all the elements at DuArt, had them preserved at the Academy, and raised money, which I supplemented.
She previewed the restoration at the Queens World Film Festival. I’m actually from Queens, and they gave me the “Spirit of Queens” award, which was quite a special honor! Richard Brody gave the film a three-page review in the New Yorker. I’m going to cry just thinking about it. It was like an angel had descended from heaven and touched this worthy, but strange and ahead-of-its-time, movie I’d made and said, “live again.” I can’t bring my grandmother back to life. But Sandra Schulberg, the Queens World Film Festival, and Richard Brody brought Thank You and Good Night back to life.
A couple of distributors wanted it, but I sold it to Criterion. And IndieCollect continues to restore important indie films, and to give them new life.
Filmmaker: The film was also ahead of its time in terms of its “hybrid” structure. I don’t think there were too many “docu-fantasies” back in the ’90s. So how did this unconventional approach to nonfiction filmmaking affect how Thank You and Good Night was initially received? Were doc purists less than enthusiastic? Did you have to deal with marketing folks unsure how to promote it?
Oxenberg: I could tell you a funny story that I’m not supposed to know. A world-famous documentary filmmaker threatened to walk off a jury if Thank You And Good Night was given the Documentary Grand Prize, which other jurors wanted to give it. Now I must say, this person had a point. The film isn’t a documentary. It has documentary footage in it – a real experience is the core of it. But I wrote a script, and it looks just like any narrative script, before I shot the rest of the film.
I edited the documentary scenes on paper and incorporated them into a feature script, narrated by a cardboard cutout character who represented my point of view in the movie. Who rails against death and tries to thwart the process at every turn. We call the character Scowling Jan, my five-year-old alter ego. She goes on a journey to find out what happened to Grandma, and to ask the unanswerable questions all of these events raise like, “Why didn’t Grandma teach my mother how to cook?” or “Why do people have to die, anyway?”
We have a terrific new trailer that Criterion made. I worked with them on it. They’re fantastic to work with. This is beyond humble bragging, this is just bragging, but it was really moving to me so I’m going to repeat it. The folks at Criterion — a collection which is good company to be in! — said, “It was ahead of its time. And there’s still nothing like it.” That Criterion trailer really captures what the film is for viewers. I still don’t know what to call it. One reviewer used the phrase “docu-fantasy.” Of course documentaries now have great cache and commercial value, so maybe I’m missing the boat by not calling it a documentary now. (Bad timing, huh?)
I had to be really naïve to make this film, I think. Though it gave me a writing career in mainstream television, it certainly isn’t what you’d make as a “calling card” for that career. I was in a community of indie filmmakers in New York who wanted to do transgressive work, not get jobs. Having the support of that community, having the intention to be different, was the soil in which this movie grew.
Filmmaker: I didn’t grow up in a family like yours, though my Jersey-raised, second-generation Eastern European Jewish parents certainly did. Though Thank You and Good Night is such a personal story it’s also a time capsule of a generation, and an idiosyncratic way of life, that really no longer exists. So how has the film changed for you over the last 30 years?
Oxenberg: Death has not gone out of style. (Some of the haircuts in the film could use updating – mine, notably.) But honestly, the family dynamics, the emotions, they don’t seem dated at all. We showed the film to a group of 20 colleagues and friends, many much younger than me, last year. They had read Brody’s New Yorker review I joked, so it’s gonna be all downhill from here. The film can’t possibly live up to what he wrote!
But these younger, mostly working writers, well, first of all they didn’t think it was downhill. They also found the film completely relatable. And not dated. Cardboard cutouts don’t grow old, they don’t die. They don’t get other acting jobs! Given how long it took to get the film finished, it was again a stroke of luck that I had whimsically chosen to use cardboard cutout actors instead of human actors. We could stop and start shooting, and the cutouts’ agents weren’t out there trying to find them other work.
My mom was at the Queens World Film Festival premiere. She knew Criterion was rereleasing the film. She died young – at age 94 – a year ago. She was going strong. She had just leased a car for three years. She was still working as an advice columnist! Still politically active. I miss her terribly. I wish she were here to see the premiere. Like I said, death, sadly, has not gone out of style.