“I Wanted To Find Real People Who Were Going Through Real Problems in an Unreal Place”: Lance Oppenheim on His Hulu-Screening Doc, Some Kind of Heaven
The recently announced results of the 2021 U.S. census produced a number of headline takeaways: for example, the nation’s white population declined for the first time, Hispanics have become California’s largest ethnic group, and metropolitan areas were the beneficiary of declining population in over half of America’s smaller counties. And among those growing metropolitan areas, one, in Florida, stood out as the most quickly expanding: The Villages. Over the last decade, the over-55 retirement community saw its population increase by nearly 40%; it now encompasses 60,000 homes, with more on the way.
Seeing The Villages show up in an official U.S. government census document as a metropolitan area instead of a place, community or small town is jarring only to anyone who hasn’t watched Lance Oppenheim’s debut documentary, Some Kind of Heaven, currently streaming on Hulu. In precise, punchy 4:3 framing, Oppenheim’s film captures the place’s unfathomable sprawl and Truman Show-like atmosphere of conformity, but it does much more than that too. As he’s accomplished in short films like Long Term Parking and The Happiest Guy in the World, Oppenheim, with a beautifully deft touch, weaves stories of individual characters into larger scale psychographic social profiles. In understanding why a man might make an airport parking lot his home, or another would become a permanent vacationeer on giant cruise ships, he traces the impulses that impact and often warp the ways in which a large swath of Americans search for meaning within this late-capitalist early 21st century.
Oppenheim appeared on Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces in 2019, and there he discussed his overall strategy: “How fantasy informs the way people live their lives, the camera has to do the same. The only way to get into these people’s lives and their stories is to accurately depict the headspace they are living in.” Indeed, his filmmaking allows the depiction of dream and fantasy to produce a kind of performative verite. The effect is both engaging and uncanny as the libidinal urges of Oppenheim’s subjects seem to push against the boundaries of the cinematic frame. (Indeed, as an off-screen interviewer, Oppenheimer possesses a startling ability to persuade his subjects to speak their subtexts.) In Some Kind of Heaven those subjects include a couple, Anne and Reggie, whose marriage is threatened by his psychedelic use and overall mental instability; Dennis, an aging bachelor searching for a wealthy wife while van-dwelling on the Village’s fringes; and Barbara, a grieving widower for whom The Villages may or may not offer another chance at love.
In this wide-ranging interview, I spoke to Oppenheim about his selection of both setting and subjects, his access strategies, his advice on working with a large team of producers and why as a relatively young person (he’s 25) he wanted to make a film about the dreams and aspirations of aging-in-place Floridians. This interview was completed in the Spring of 2021 but is being published for the first time.
Filmmaker: I assume that for you Some Kind of Heaven started with the place, The Villages. And I also assume that at any given time you have lots of documentary ideas in your head, and that perhaps you thought of making a short and not a feature at The Villages. So what made it a feature, and what was your process of finding the four main people in the film and making them your main throughlines?
Oppenheim: I think the first thing that drew me was the setting, but what I quickly realized was that setting isn’t story. It became pretty clear to me after a shoot or two that the film that was more interesting to make was one that just wasn’t a portrait of the community but was a kind of dance between portraiture of this place — the constant reverie, being in the Zumba club, the pickleball club — and stories of people who didn’t really fit into those things. I didn’t enter this project thinking that I was going to make a feature. That formed pretty organically. After the first shoot, I knew that we were capturing something special, but narratively, I had no clue. I was just kind of following my gut. What I did know was that when you trained a camera on The Villages, all you could really see is the artifice of the place. So I wanted to find real people, people who were going through real problems in an unreal place. I thought if I could look at the world through their point of view, the place would come alive in a more organic way and it could feel more like the fictional depictions of suburban hell that I grew up loving in stories like Philip K. Dick’s The Days of Perky Pat or movies like Edward Scissorhands, Judgement City in Defending Your Life, or the toxic suburbia in Safe and Blue Velvet.
Filmmaker: And what about making it a character-based film as opposed to one that looked at The Villages from another kind of perspective?
Oppenheim: That came with time. The thing that was immediately clear in my mind were all of the trapdoors… the obvious and uninspired ways one could make a film about The Villages. Though we were filming there in 2018 and 2019, well before a lot of the Trumpian golf cart parades began, I was nonetheless less interested in leaning into the cliche of the place as a political pariah. Nor was I interested in spoon-feeding information about the origins of that community to an audience. I was more interested in chasing a feeling… the experience of what it’s like to be there and be unstuck from our reality and transported into theirs. In the early days of shooting, I did try to look at the world from more of an institutional level, a la a Frederick Wiseman movie. But I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t have the access that was necessary to make that kind of film. So it became a process of spending time, meeting as many residents as I could, and doing that without a camera. I found a 300-page document listing all the clubs, and I would just email people, roam from club to club, and show up uninvited to things. I lived in an AirBnB with these two retired rodeo clowns for a while before shooting. And over time, I started noticing these really anxiety-provoking attitudes that came with the Peter Pan syndrome of the place. Everyone there was attempting to return to a simpler, younger time in their lives. People were acknowledging the ticking clock, and with that, every second of every minute of every hour of the day had to be great. It stressed me out. It reminded me of high school all over again, my worst nightmares of trying to fit into something. I was so desperate to fit into [an activity] that everyone thought was cool and acceptable. I hated those days. So I had a big antenna set for whoever didn’t fit into that kind of thing.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting to hear you say this because, of course, there’s another movie you could have made, which is a movie set in a high school that explored those specific anxieties. As a young person, what was it about exploring those anxieties within this arena of older people that fulfilled a kind of investigative quest for you? Or, to put it another way, where do you find yourself in this movie?
Oppenheim: If I’m, like, psychoanalyzing myself or something, I was in a long relationship that had just ended. So there was some interest on a subconscious level in pursuing questions of how to maintain a relationship when you’ve been married to someone for like 42 years and also how to make new ones. And that became the way in which we whittled down the stories. At one point we were shooting with 25 people and then it became about a married couple, a widow and a bachelor. Three very different needs and wants. It was all about finding something authentic in the middle of this kind of plastic utopia. How could I find the heart? I wanted to make something that found humanity to what it’s actually like to live there when the dream becomes a nightmare.
Filmmaker: You said you were staying in the Airbnb with these two rodeo clowns. Was that in The Villages or outside?
Oppenheim: In The Villages.
Filmmaker: I wasn’t clear how much the Villages is like a gated community. Theoretically, I could get an AirBnB and hang out in The Villages?
Oppenheim: Yes. It’s completely symbolic. I existed in the community as a visitor — a visitor for nearly three years, basically, renting out homes on Airbnb for me and my crew. But initially, in the scouting days, I was messaging all these AirBnB hosts as a documentary filmmaker trying to find people who’d teach me what this place was. The two people I lived with, the rodeo clowns, were renting a room in their house because the wife of the couple had leukemia, and it was their way to pay their medical bills. They were showing me all their [rodeo memorabilia]. There was something deeply tragic going on, but yet the way they were dealing with their problems was performative and somewhat humorous. That feeling was something I experienced all around town there, and I wanted that to be in the film somehow. Going back to your initial question, following these people, I didn’t know where these stories would go. It took a lot of convincing and, honestly, bullshitting to financiers until I got to the point where I knew what I was doing and what the film was going to be. It took a lot of just observing and being there for things to happen.
Filmmaker: So it sounds like the permissions process and getting location permits was maybe not as extensive a one as I would have guessed.
Oppenheim: It’s a funny thing you bring up because, you know, I tried and then I never heard anything from the administration. I just kind of kept filming and then somehow our sizzle [reel], our sales tool to get investors, found its way to the administration. At that point I was pretty sure there was a digital wanted poster of my face sent around to all the private businesses. I think they may have thought of me making a more critical film or a film that was more of an exposé than what I think we ended up making. But, yes, we had to engage in many different levels of like guerilla filmmaking. We resorted to some ridiculous strategies. I would go to the gift shop and would buy polo shirts and hats that had The Villages insignia on them. Or I’d buy a construction outfit for my crew. So anytime someone would try and stop us, I would dance around for another five or 10 minutes while the rest of the crew got the shot we needed. But then when we were in the people’s homes, that was different, because it was their private property.
Filmmaker: Throughout your work you demonstrate a knack for getting people to explicitly verbalize their feelings and goals. In the scenes here with the couple, Reggie and Anne, I thought that you were almost functioning in a therapeutic kind of way. It felt like there was a bit of marriage counseling going on. Tell me about your presence off camera when you’re interviewing people because you’re not an off-screen voice in any of your work. How do you interview people? Are you trying to draw people out? Are you just sort of letting the camera roll for long periods? Are you pointedly interjecting, or are you trying to lead people towards the point that you think you could maybe get them to?
Oppenheim: Well, I had never done anything like this before where I had worked with subjects over the course of two and a half years or so. My previous experience making movies, I would go into a place and have seven days to figure out and shoot the entire thing. With the Reggie and Anne thread, I had met Reggie while I was filming with someone else. I was at a singles’ bar called City Fire. It’s like a Chili’s that turns into like a pickup bar at night. Everyone’s dancing, and Reggie was there doing tai chi while wearing glow in the dark strobe-lit gloves. I was filming with someone else and kept moving the camera around to try and not include him in the shot. Eventually I couldn’t do it. So I said, “I’m sorry, we’re making a film, do you mind just waiting over here for a second?” And he told me that I was filming with the wrong subject. He had, in his own words, “actualized’ us and needed to be the “star” of the film. Well, he convinced us. The first time we filmed with him was the sequence in the pool. He had emphasized the importance of us breaking bread, and brought us some homemade bread as a greeting gift. We didn’t realize until after we ate it and felt funny that it was baked with THC. So we were on a different dimension with him while we were filming that. The next time we filmed with him I realized he was married to someone whose interests were diametrically opposed to his, and they were married for 43 years, existing on completely different schedules, Reggie operating on like the twilight hours of the day and, Anne waking up at a normal time and going to play sports and everything. Anne was probably the only person that I really had to convince to be in the film and for good reason. I don’t know if a lot of people would [allow] a bunch of random filmmakers appear in their life and bear witness to the hardships of a marriage. But there was a lot of mutual trust and mutual curiosity that we all fostered for each other. With Anne, the more upfront I could be about how we were planning to shoot something and how I imagined it being used in the film, the more giving she was to us. Pacho Velez, one of the producers on the film, also suggested we frame our interviews with Reggie and Anne with the two of them together, which enlivened the frame and made things feel more therapeutic, in a way.
The other component to this question too, though, is about the way in which we shot the film. This isn’t a typical observational documentary, and all the attempts we tried of being a fly on the wall were impossible. Because we were younger, we were sticking out like sore thumbs. And if you have a four person crew, and you’re shooting with a camera bigger than an iPhone, it will probably always draw attention. So we just had to lean into it, and we knew there was something interesting about matching the artifice of the place with compositions that could speak to that as well. We would get to a [location] earlier than the subjects and figure out the angles we wanted to capture. Filming this way, entirely on a tripod, also made me more honest with our subjects about what we were capturing, why I was hoping it would be captured, and how we thought it would be used in the film. So there was a performative quality to it — our subjects enacting as collaborators in this sort of way. Nothing was scripted or invented, but our subjects were enacting scenes from their everyday lives… The irony that I think this is like the most honest way to make maybe a documentary [because] your subjects really know what you’re doing. There’s no question of them thinking that you’re going to take advantage of them because they’re your collaborators. I very much enjoyed the process of doing things like this this way versus making a story in the edit.
Filmmaker: To follow up on what you’ve said about composition, your eye is consistently drawn towards patterns and choreography, whether it’s people dancing or the Esther Williams kind of water ballet. Are these sequences staged or choreographed, or are you simply finding these examples of group choreography and then framing them in such a way that together they provide a kind of visual unity to the entire film?
Oppenheim: The photographer Larry Sultan talks about riffing off of reality. He did this series on porn sets, “The Valley,” where he’s capturing the behind-the-scenes. There’s something so stylized and artful about it because he’s riffing off of lighting setups they had already. I would say [that approach] applied very much to how we were shooting this film. I spend a lot of time without a camera looking around and noticing patterns and things like that. And looking at folks doing the line dancing and sychronized swimming, I was thinking about lack of individuality, everyone following each other’s movements. There are hundreds of clubs that deal with being in sync with other people in some fashion. So it was a matter of finding those things. And, honestly, this is a credit to my cinematographer, David Bolen. He would immediately find the shot. He knew exactly what we were looking for when we went to those places. But with, for example, the synchronized swimmers, we went to three different synchronized swimmer clubs to find a place that had a little bit of elevation [for an overhead shot]. So there was a lot of intention to capturing those shots, and I think those [ideas] came to us much earlier in the process than the stories of the actual subjects, which are like the meat of the film. Back in college, [the director] Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Robb Moss, and filmmaker Ross McElwee gave me a lot of really helpful notes; they served as my thesis advisors and were on a committee together. [Early on] they would [look at footage] and say that the film was sort of like an endless tray of hors d’oeuvres with no main course. So I knew I needed to find something that could augment those images, or call them into question.
Filmmaker: In addition to Lucien, Robb Moss, and Ross McElwee, you mentioned Pacho, who has a producer credit on the film, as do other directors such as Jeff Orlowski and Darren Aronofsky. How did you engage with all these people during the feedback process? When it comes to taking in notes, do you have much of an ego about it? Or do you encourage people to be brutal?
Oppenheim: Absolutely. I think maybe it comes from just being conditioned by being in so many critique sessions in college with grad students and just getting my stuff destroyed. But I don’t think it was an intentional choice to get this clown car of so many helpful and amazing people to be on board the film. Everyone served a different role. My sister, Melissa, was my creative and physical producer on the ground, as was one of my best friends from college, Christian Vazquez. There was Pacho, who I met through my film program, Kathleen Lingo at the New York Times, the Los Angeles Media Fund who ultimately financed the film. Jeff was my assigned Sundance mentor in the Sundance Ignite program, and he helped guide us when we were trying to find financing. And aside from being a very talented filmmaker, he’s a really good executive producer. He thinks in an architect kind of way and gave me a lot of broad, big picture thoughts. And then Darren, who I got in touch with after sending ten or so unsolicited emails over a few years, watched five or six cuts and just tore the thing apart so many times. His notes always unclogged something in my brain that I hadn’t really thought about. So I love being collaborative.
Filmmaker: You mentioned that Jeff has a good business mind. What was some of the guidance in that area he provided?
Oppenheim: Just in terms of how to get a film financed and how to talk to investors. Jeff was always impressing upon me is that there is a way in which you can retain ownership of your work creatively by setting the tone of how you work with the people who are financing your film. And it’s important to keep everyone abreast and as involved creatively in the process as possible. We were probably the cheapest film to make out of those by all the people involved — Los Angeles Media Fund, who financed the film, and the New York Times and Darren. As much as I possibly could, I tried to update everyone where I was [creatively], to share what I was doing and hear people’s thoughts.
Filmmaker: Your film came out after the election and inauguration and, last year, we saw the footage of the retirees at The Villages having MAGA rallies while riding around in their golf carts. In post-production, was there any pressure to insert more politics in the film given how dominant politics has been in our, in our media landscape these last few years?
Oppenheim: The conservative ethos of the Villages is literally its reason for being. It is a sort of conservative fantasy in a lot of ways. Its landsapes are drawn from a kind of “Morning in America” Ronald Reagan ad. And the amazing thing is that you would think that having a partner like The New York Times I would have had to insert more politics in the film. But, Kathleen [Lingo], who runs the the Film and TV division and has worked on a lot of my shorts, recognized that the film didn’t want to be that thing, and I don’t know if it could have supported it in a way. I think that would have been a much less interesting movie to make. Is is surprising that 98.3% of a predominantly white retirement community supports Trump? No. I didn’t think a film that was a kind of pat political expose would be as interesting one concerned with what it means to be human, and the lengths we go to to try and evade one’s problems in life, and how those problems catch up with you.