“…Liz was Isolated as a Felon on the Run, Transitioning Alone”: Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker on Their HBO Docuseries The Lady and the Dale
Binge-worthy doesn’t even begin to describe The Lady and the Dale, Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker’s four-part, one-of-a-kind docuseries, premiering January 31 on HBO. Produced by the Duplass brothers, this twist-and-turning saga stars a three-wheeled car called the Dale (that may or may not have been viable) and its marketer extraordinaire, a visionary female entrepreneur (and longtime serial con artist) named Elizabeth Carmichael. With a promise of 70 miles to the gallon at a time when the 70s oil crisis was leaving Americans to linger at gas stations in Soviet-long lines, the Dale seemed to many a dream come true. And to others, too good to be true.
As Carmichael’s over the top boasts and publicity stunts edged her ever closer to breaking the glass ceiling (and upending Detroit), a few corporate-friendly, straight white guys began to sniff around. (Most notably an equally egotistical local news reporter by the name of Dick Carlson – yes, he who spawned that other pompous right-wing journo.) In short order, the story of an overhyped sports car became a focus on Liz Carmichael herself, which inevitably transformed into the tale of her former existence as Jerry Dean Michael, who for decades had scammed his way from coast to coast, dragging a loving wife and adoring five kids in tow.
But perhaps most remarkable – or unremarkable – of all was that the more Carmichael changed in physical appearance the more she stayed true to her grifter ways. Which resulted in a maddeningly ambiguous answer to the frustrating question that all non-cisgender folk have historically faced: Are you really what you claim to be? For ultimately, and ironically, the larger than life Liz had been able to convince more people to believe in her outlandish lies than to give credence to what seemed to be her sole inviolable truth. Sure, Elizabeth Carmichael had been born Jerry Dean Michael, but she’d never been a man.
So to garner some clear-eyed answers Filmmaker reached out to Cammilleri and Drucker just prior to The Lady and the Dale’s debut to learn all about their head spinning journey back in time and down the rabbit hole.
Filmmaker: So how did you all team up to do this series? And was it important to have both cisgender and non-cisgender folks involved in production (particularly for gaining access to the diverse range of interview subjects, from the trans to the transphobic)?
Cammilleri: I produced the project alone for the first six years. In that time it took all my effort just to gather the story of Liz’s crimes, the Dale, the rose business – finding subjects, writing court orders, mailing letters, digging up archival, getting funding. There wasn’t a lot on Liz’s life as a trans woman, save for a few diary entries published in the press. So when producers Allen Bain, Andre Gaines, and Duplass Brothers Productions came onboard in 2017 and 2018, we all agreed we needed representation across the spectrum (both cis and non-cisgender crew and speakers) in order to complete Liz’s portrait as a wholehearted and three-dimensional trans woman.
Zackary came onboard immediately as a creative. It was clear she cared as much about Liz as I did. She helped me uncover a lot of Liz’s trans life and personal journey in a way I hadn’t seen before, and couldn’t see because I didn’t have that lived experience. Our production crew was so diverse, with so many opinions on who Liz Carmichael was, that it helped inform every decision we made about her life in an amazing way.
Because I’d been shooting for seven years I had already interviewed nearly every cisgender interview subject you see in the series. So when Duplass Borthers Productions came onboard we reshot all the interviews, while adding some incredible LGBT scholars to help illuminate Liz’s life as a trans woman. It just became a matter of who would be in the room for each interview. Once or twice the decision was made not to have Zackary there for fear of the subject being openly transphobic or withholding. But that was rare. Zackary conducted the interviews with all her subjects. I conducted the interviews with all mine. Allen Bain conducted the interviews with (family members) Candi and Richard. Every decision was a collective one.
Drucker: Making a film or television series takes a village, and the making of this was epic. It’s fair to say that this project was transformative for many of us. We all learned something about ourselves and our families in its creation. Exploring such disparate vantage points added to its complexity. We all move in and out of various roles throughout our lives. Any trans person who has a large extended family knows that, even in your family of origin, there can be a wide range of perspectives and levels of understanding as to why you are who you are.
Filmmaker: I was particularly struck by the exquisite craftsmanship in this series — specifically the combo of archival imagery, animation, and photo collage with the audio recordings. Even though Liz Carmichael died over a decade and a half ago, I actually got the sense that she was alive and well and telling her own story throughout. So how did you go about creating and stitching together all these various parts (which also includes many contemporary interviews)? I’m guessing this must have been an incredibly time-consuming process.
Cammilleri: Because Liz’s story was so effectively erased by the press, The Lady and the Dale became the most challenging project I’d ever worked on. There was almost nothing left of Liz, so we had to piece her back together from the scraps of archival, stock photos, VO — even employing crew members’ families to serve as character head replacements. (My grandfather Tommy portrays Mary Thayer’s husband in episode three. He crushed it.) That creative restriction soon resulted in such a rich and nuanced world personal to Liz’s imagination, that grows and shrinks with her through the various phases of her story. Our animation team Awesome + Modest and Sean Donnelly, our animation director, deserve all the credit in the world for some of the most amazing animation I’ve ever seen. They brought Liz’s world to life.
Drucker: We had limited archival material of Liz, so much of her voice is reenacted based on direct quotes from articles since she was so extensively quoted or recorded in the media. But the breadth of other material was intimidating. There are thousands of pages of FBI files, hundreds of newspaper articles and lots of archival television discoveries. We interviewed more than 30 people, half of whom did not end up in the series. Animation is really the key to Liz’s internal universe. Trans people create their own universes because we must claw out space for ourselves in a world that would probably rather we not exist. Liz’s animation style is scrappy, DIY, paper-based cutouts with jagged edges. We wanted it to feel like this is how Liz would animate her story. It’s tactile, it’s analog, there isn’t a single digital dissolve or transition. It’s a completely paper-based process/world.
Filmmaker: One of the most fascinating admissions in the series comes from Candi Michael, Liz’s adoring daughter, who stressed that the whole family had been a part of Liz’s transition from Jerry Dean. It happened slowly over time, which really made me rethink the era before hormones and surgeries became more readily accessible. There’s just something to be said for an unhurried process, one that allows loved ones to collectively come to terms with physical change. So were there any specific revelations regarding trans identity that you personally garnered through researching this story?
Drucker: Thank you, that is such a thoughtful question. In the scope of trans people through time, eking out an existence, swimming upstream, it’s hard to imagine Liz’s story going any other way. I didn’t know about Liz before Jay and Mark Duplass approached me with this project, and Liz’s whole story was a tremendous learning experience for me. Many of the trans elders I’ve known from her generation came out of a queer community, but Liz was isolated as a felon on the run, transitioning alone.
The harshest realization was how little men’s views of trans people have changed over time. When asked about Liz’s trans identity, many of our subjects had negative things to say, which in most cases was not necessary to include in the final cut. I introduced myself to interview subjects as Victoria, my “passing” legal name, and only one of the subjects seemed to notice that I was trans. Many of the rest didn’t. I feel confident about saying that because of the derogatory things that they said about trans people, which I really doubt they would’ve said if they had identified me as trans.
Cammilleri: I wasn’t too familiar with the LGBT community, so I never really understood why trans people were called frauds or con artists. It’s one thing to read about it in a book, but it’s quite another to hear it and see it over and over and over – as if being trans is as much of a crime as being a criminal. But Liz never conceded a day in her life. She woke up every day making the choice to be Liz Carmichael, despite knowing what she would face. That’s more courage than most people have in the world. My biggest revelation: survival is heroism.
Filmmaker: The fact that Liz, like fellow conservative Republican Caitlyn Jenner, grew up with the view of white male entitlement as an inherent right is a key part of her life story. (Indeed, it’s actually unsurprising that Liz was such a fan of Ayn Rand, who I always suspected was herself genderqueer as Rand was never able to comprehend, and practically despised, women who didn’t male-identify as she did.) It just seems that Liz’s contempt for society grew with the increasingly thwarted expectation of taking her white male privilege with her into womanhood. She just couldn’t comprehend giving up that power or having it stripped from her. So how did this unsympathetic aspect — a victim who couldn’t see others as victims — inform your approach to the story?
Drucker: You are spot on. I love this analysis. I’m totally with you.
Cammilleri: Yes, thank you for such an incredible analysis. By 2000 everything was stripped from Liz, including her own name. She was forced to survive in the shadows as Kathy Johnson. Yet that entitlement seemed almost cruelly reflected in Mark Lisheron’s appearance. Early in my filming process, Mark admitted he had no journalistic reason to be at the compound. The irony of that admission always stuck with me. The very thing that withdrew Liz from society is what brought Lisheron to her doorstep. In that moment — in that scene — it became clear Liz’s story was always a tragedy. A life filled with dopplegangers. Once we knew that, we just had to inch our way down, episode by episode, into that inevitable crevasse.
Filmmaker: Finally, how exactly did you get transphobic Dick Carlson to participate? (Was a straight cisgender white man strategically sent to do the interview?) The irony that libertarian Liz was taken down by another free-market Reagan Republican is just too rich. Is Carlson still to this day unable to see that he and Liz shared the same worldview?
Cammilleri: Well, the villain always thinks they’re the hero of their own story. So I told Carlson he was the hero, and he agreed. I shot the interview with our cameraman Matt LaCorte (a cis male) in 2016 prior to DBP coming onboard.
As for the last part, even if they did have a common worldview I don’t think he’d ever see it, because he’s not looking to relate to her. She was an enemy to be defeated.
Drucker: Liz Carmichael continues to be one of Dick Carlson’s amusing stories. Really he’s a bit player in the arc of Liz’s life, but what he represents is a deep legacy of the media-shaping opinions around trans-ness and gender expansive people that continues through to today. The future gets better and worse simultaneously. Liz could fly under the radar because trans people were not part of the public’s imagination, but now we are certainly the most visible generation of trans people to come along, and the most organized. Our movement has grown, and so too has opposition to our rights. The story of Liz and Dick is a somewhat humble microcosm of what is today a global conversation. Dick Carlson’s day is over, and I’m not that interested in dissecting him – but we have a whole hell of a lot of insight now into who Tucker Carlson is and what motivates his transphobia.