Exploring Personal Loss Through Film: The (Dead Mothers) Club

Grief and pain are always powerful emotions on film. When moviemakers explore their own grief and pain, it can speed personal healing and create something that resonates with audiences. First-time directors Carlye Rubin and Katie Green get introspective both in their new documentary The (Dead Mothers) Club, and while interviewing each other for MovieMaker about the film’s upcoming broadcast on HBO.

The (Dead Mothers) Club - Katie Green, Carlye Rubin & Molly Shannon 1

(L – R) Green, Rubin and Molly Shannon. Courtesy of Josh Hailey Studio

In less than two weeks our documentary, The (Dead Mothers) Club will have its broadcast premiere on HBO. As the title may suggest, the film explores the lives of three women who all share the experience of losing their mothers before the age of 21. Having both lost our mothers ourselves, this – our directorial debut – was very much a labor of love. Our film follows three women at significant crossroads in their lives, each (figuratively) meeting their mothers again. We aim to subtly show how the absence of their mothers, despite years passed, continues to play a role in the lives their lives today. Threading their stories together are interviews with Rosie O’Donnell, Jane Fonda and Molly Shannon, who all give their own unique and candid insights into the premature loss of their own mothers.

It still feels surreal that more people than just our dads will see this film. We just returned from our first festival run. Albeit brief, it was inspiring to meet other filmmakers, screen our film, and see how it resonated with audiences. It’s been a long, difficult journey with our haphazard approach to filmmaking, leading to an unexpectedly happy ending.

When we began this project we barely knew each other, let alone how to operate a camera. What we lacked in skills, we hoped to make up for in gumption! We were living in two separate countries when we met at a coffee shop in New York, but after that brief meeting and countless emails back and forth we decided to collaborate. In September of 2009 Hope Edelman (author of the New York Times best-seller Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss) agreed to an interview, which was a great place to start. Unsure of how many women would be interested in speaking to us, we cast the net wide and put the word out. We were blown away by how many women wanted to share their stories.

Everyone has their own way of working. Add to that the countless variables that come into play: luck, timing, content, funding, stories, etc. In our case, it took four years, three countries, two filmmakers and one mother of an effort (so to speak) to get the right women talking. We’re now eight months into production on a new documentary about the juvenile justice system (No Place for Children), and have fallen in love with a new set of subjects whose stories we’re completely invested in telling. We thought it might be interesting to interview each other for a change, as opposed to both being in the hot seat together.

The (Dead Mothers) Club - Katie Green & Carlye Rubin (Directors). Photo Credit: HBO

Green and Rubin. Courtesy of Josh Hailey Studio

Carlye Rubin (CR): What did you think were the biggest challenges or advantages of filmmaking in a partnership?

Katie Green (KG): The biggest advantage is that you’re sharing the workload and the risk you’re taking with someone, because it is a massive risk. So to have someone share that burden takes the edge off. Not only were we taking on the filmmaking side of things together, but we had also shared the core experience at the center of this film.

The biggest challenge for us was that we were geographically an undesirable partnership, with me being in London when we started, and you in NY, which meant that we were not working day to day, face to face. While that had its advantages, in that we were able to have a break from one another and the project, it also delayed things a lot. Working with a partner meant that you couldn’t just do things the way you wanted to do them, and it’s an important lesson in being responsible for another person in something that I think can be quite a selfish mission.

KG: What do you think is the most important element in seeing this through, particularly as a first-time filmmaker?

CR: If you have enough passion and drive to take an idea from conception to fruition, then you know you need to have a one track mind and be fully committed to making it happen. Regardless of what roadblocks you come across—because you will hit several. It’s difficult to not get distracted by people doubting you, or more importantly, your own self-doubt.

Sometimes the hardest part is just knowing where to start. One of the best pieces of advice I got was to just start filming. Even if you don’t know how to shoot, just pick up a camera and teach yourself. If you don’t have a camera, borrow or rent one. Use your phone if it will get you moving from a concept and into production. If you have an idea that you can’t stop thinking about, just go for it… if you don’t do it, someone else will.

CR: Four years is a big time commitment for making a film on spec. Did you ever question whether or not you could finish this film, or why you were making it?

KG: Ha, yes, many times. In documentaries, there are so many odds stacked against you—lack of funding typically being the main one. This meant production was inconsistent and drawn out. These lags between shooting were tough because we wanted to be filming all the time and didn’t want to lose momentum.

Also, for me at least, at the time of making this film the documentaries I’d previously worked on and were inspired by had these strong political messages. I was an activist and naively wanted to ‘change the world’ through documentary film, so I saw this film was a side project that reflected something of my own life experience, but I struggled with understanding its place in a wider sense and its message. I think it took me a while to get it and realize that it didn’t have to have a clear message, but could still be a portrait of a female experience and that was very much part of my own education as a documentary filmmaker.

We’re so grateful HBO came on board when they did because at that point we’d finished the film but barely had a penny to work out how we were going to polish it off, take it to festivals, market and promote it, let alone sell it!

CR: Yeah, we talked about that a lot. This struggle between whether this was a selfish attempt at filling some un-fillable [sic] void or creating something that will speak to the universal component of love and loss. Every time we had a setback I went back to questioning—I never felt crazy per se, but had the impression other people thought we were. [Our perceived insanity] became a running joke: “Oh, they think they’re making this film, their moms died, just humor them.”

I just wanted to be able to get the film shot, raise enough funds for post and have it seen, even if we had to throw another grassroots campaign together for a festival run—or go door to door.

The (Dead Mothers) Club - Leticia Guiamaraes Lyle & Anna Carolina

Leticia Guimaraes Lyle and Anna Carolina. Courtesy of Josh Hailey Studio

KG: Looking back, what do you think were the moments that really shaped the course of the production?

CR: There were several instances that completely altered the trajectory of the film and (I think) they were always brought on by an outsider’s unfiltered feedback. One time we found ourselves in Fisher Stevens’ office (a friend of ours works for Insurgent Media) and ended up showing him a very rough teaser. It makes me squirm now thinking about it, but at the time we were toying with the idea of using voiceover and, for some reason, I was the one elected to narrate. Everyone knows your voice is more soothing [because you’re British]. I just remember wanting to melt into his couch but immediately after we were able to recognize what wasn’t working. He gave us honest, though somewhat difficult-to-take, feedback, but it ultimately forced us to ask ourselves questions regarding how we were going to piece the stories together.

Another time was when our first executive producer got on board; I hope she won’t mind my mentioning her. To this day, we’ve never met Regina Kulik-Scully in person, only exchanged emails after connecting through a mutual friend. Those emails ultimately led to her backing the project, enabling us to get back out to film at a critical time when we were out of funding. I still marvel at her blind generosity and belief in us.

Rosie [O’Donnell] was the ultimate game changer. To have that kind of force championing us as first-time female filmmakers and lending her likeness to a subject matter so rarely spoken about, completely ignited something far bigger than we ever aspired to. It was the people who engaged with our footage and were honest in their critical feedback that forced us to kill our darlings and ultimately make a tighter film.

KG: I think doing a Kickstarter campaign was a really pivotal moment for us because it forced us to organize our footage and made it easier moving forward to see what we were missing, content-wise. It was the first time we really put this project out there, which was scary but it enabled us to think about who our audience was outside of what felt like a very small community of women who lost their mothers. We saw it as a pretty successful campaign in that we exceeded our goal (not by much, but still), we maintained a pretty steady flow of backers, and it gave us an exposure that up until that point was limited to family and friends. To reach a wider network of people was incredibly validating but more than that, it refueled the responsibility we felt to those who were now invested in the film. And we were then able to hire Tina [Grapenthin, editor].

CR: Yes. Tina, or ‘Qina as we affectionately call her, was the missing link on our team. She came on board as an editor but ended up with a producing credit because her involvement went way beyond the edit, in terms of helping us hone in on our storylines and seeing what we were missing content-wise. MM

Watch the trailer for The (Dead Mothers) Club:

HBO broadcasts The (Dead Mothers) Club on Monday, May 12 at 9p.m. EST. Find out more about the film here.  MM

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