“The Camera is My Beloved”
Michelle Memran Creates Documentary Art with María Irene Fornés
The Rest I Make Up is a poetic rumination by filmmaker Michelle Memran about playwright María Irene Fornés, now in her late 80s and living with late-stage Alzheimer’s. The film is a visual and literary love letter to its subject. I talked with Michelle in late February 2018, about a week after the film’s world premiere screening at MOMA.
Martha: You are a journalist who edged your way into documentary filmmaking with The Rest I Make Up. I’d like to talk about how you put it together. You originally met María Irene Fornés as a journalist conducting an interview?
Michelle: This was in 1999. She didn’t love journalists and she really didn’t care about what we were talking about in the interview. She didn’t answer any of the questions that I had about critics, the subject of the piece I was writing. “Oh critics, let’s talk about something else, let’s talk about me.” She once told me when the early reviews came out about her plays, she didn’t care. In the early days she would just like to see her name in the paper. “My name’s in the paper, I’m a part of this community now,” you know?
[When] Irene began to write plays...she didn’t know what she was doing, which allowed her to experiment, and gave her this freedom. It was the perfect master class in filmmaking because I didn’t know what I was doing.
Martha: You include in the film the story of your relationship with Irene in an exchange when she asks you, genuinely and playfully, “When did we meet?” And at one point you say, “You weren’t writing, and you didn’t know why. I wanted to write a play and I didn’t know how.”
Michelle: She met with me at a time where she wasn’t actively writing and teaching and had a lot of time. The film includes film of a trip we took to Brighton Beach. That’s the first footage I shot. I had a camera as a gift from my Dad from some years before that I’d maybe turned on once and I just brought it along. The beginning of the film project was that moment when I asked, “Does the camera make you uncomfortable?” and she replied, “The camera is my beloved.”
Before that Brighton Beach day trip, I had been spending a lot of time with Irene. I would go visit her in the West Village on my lunch breaks from my work as a fact checker at Vanity Fair. At that point I kind of knew that her memory was not great, but she hadn’t been to a doctor and was not formally diagnosed.
Martha: The camera seemed to provide another way to engage and create, and rooted you both in the present, moment to moment.
Michelle: What interested her was the moment. When the camera came on, there’s nothing more spontaneous, just whatever was on her mind, putting it out there. It was effortless for her. I called her agent Morgan Jenness and told her how Irene really responded to the camera. “What if we do some kind of film project? What if we just bring the camera around with us?” I had no experience in film. I loved taking pictures, and I was a visual artist, I did some drawing. But I had never done a film project.
Martha: But you had this camera given to you by your father and you jumped in.
Michelle: It was a Hi8 camera. He was always getting me electronic stuff. He knew that I had a visual sense. Eventually, I got a better camera, a mini DV camera from an old roommate of mine who wasn’t using it. I think those tapes from Brighton Beach were the only ones that were shot on Hi8.
I would go visit Irene, and bring food and the camera, and sometimes some beer. That was basically how it all began. We didn’t know what we were doing.
There are scenes in the film where I don’t know how to get the light right, I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know how to do that, but it was perfect. The story of how Irene began to write plays is she didn’t know what she was doing, which allowed her to experiment, and gave her this freedom. It was the perfect master class in filmmaking because we were making it up as we went along. I don’t think if I’d come with a big crew she would have ever let me in the door.
Martha: This film is not a linear story of a life, but something else. Talk about the fluid sense of time you establish.
Michelle: Irene doesn’t really know what time it is, so it didn’t matter to me, and the filming went on over a long period of time. I was visiting Irene a lot, and she was lamenting the loss of teaching gigs: she wasn’t getting called to teach and she didn’t know why. She didn’t know what was happening to her. “I’m not writing, it’s not bothering me, but I don’t know why I’m not writing,” she would say. “I don’t think it’s the memory. I just don’t feel like writing.” We’d go out on the street and she would notice 10,000 things, and be so in the moment, so creative every second. It just exudes from her pores.
Martha: The documentary includes marvelous sequences of Irene talking about herself, and many with others who reflect on her influence in their lives and their art. It seems important to have all those reflections about her. Were these interviews something you planned from the beginning?
Michelle: The way that the interviews began, I was filming with Irene and she’s telling me about everyone, names like Al Carmines and Larry Kornfeld and Promenade and Alice Playten. I would write down all these names and say, “We should go find them.” Part of me wanted to interview people so that I could get them involved in her life again. That was my impetus at the beginning, which totally transformed over time.
After one of the early interviews with Larry Kornfeld, I received a call from him and his wife Margaret. “We’ve talked to somebody about the film, and she would like to help you.” That somebody turned out to be Wendy vanden Heuvel and piece by piece productions. I showed her outtakes on a flip camera of Irene being Irene, and she saw something in that footage that I don’t think anyone else would have seen at that moment.
We got a grant that flipped our mindset to: we’re making a film. I started interviewing more people. I reached out to playwright Caridad Svich who gave me a list of people who were in her book Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes. I started writing to people and everyone was excited about being interviewed.
People like Edward Albee responded immediately and said, “Come out to Montauk, I’d love to talk about Irene.” And then there were some things that happened serendipitously. I ran into Lanford Wilson after filming a Q and A and captured him talking about Irene, and I ran into John Guare and Connie Congdon with Irene on the street.
The beginning of the film project was that moment when I asked, ‘Does the camera make you uncomfortable?’ and she replied, ‘The camera is my beloved.
Martha: As you were walking along the street she talked about Judson Poets’ Theater. The timing of that moment in the film is really potent. We’ve seen her grappling with memory loss, but she remembered Judson and she knew exactly where it was.
Michelle: And Irene always knew who I was in a certain sense. There was never any question that we were very close and that we were working on something together. People ask, does she know who you are? I say, she knows what I am. She may not know who I am, but she knows that there’s love, and that there’s warmth. There was always that connection between us. It still exists but not in the sense of name recognition or even face recognition any more. It’s more: let me touch your hand.
Martha: What was your process in turning the footage into a film? Did you bring other people in?
Michelle: It was just a complete joy to make with her, and it was a nightmare to edit. We just kept shooting without any intention. That’s what documentary is, but I had never done it before. We have so much footage from all these years. How do we end it and what do we do with it and how do we even structure it?
I first hired editor Shelby Siegel, who ended up as a very close friend and a producer and consultant on the film. At the time we were asking: what is the story?
I ended up going to NYU film school for a semester, just to make this one film—I didn’t have the same ambition that everyone else around me had to make narratives. We got another grant and I took a leave. I hired other editors along the way, then I put it aside for a few years.
We did a fifteen-minute excerpt in 2008 that I gave to Migdalia Cruz who would show it when she was teaching because she always felt it was helpful to have Irene in the room. She showed it at a conference in 2012 or so, which led to an email from Erik Ehn. “I just watched this piece on Irene Fornés and why isn’t this film finished and what can I do to help you?” He brought me to Brown in 2013 for two months as a visiting scholar with housing.
I did another residency at McDowell and came to terms with the fact that there was no way I would ever be able to edit this alone. We got money to hire editor Melissa Neidich, whose mother had Alzheimer’s, so she had a real understanding of the sensitivity of the material.
Martha: How did you land on the discursive, dreamlike structure for the finished film?
Michelle: We realized that it’s not going to work unless it’s coming from Irene, unless she’s taking us through her memories and through her life. She would have a memory and I’d say, okay, we have to go find the footage to fill in that memory. She mentions Susan Sontag so we would need a moment with Susan Sontag. She was guiding us and telling us. She didn’t want to talk about her plays. Irene really didn’t remember the details about her plays anymore, but she was talking about off off Broadway and Cuba all the time.
Martha: The role of song and dance in the film is marvelous. There’s a joyous editing choice of having her lovely light spirit dancing at the beginning and dancing at the end.
Michelle: She had a real sense of musicality in her work and in her life that came out naturally. It was all so spontaneous, on the street, singing or dancing in Cuba and on beaches. She really loved musicals, loved going to the theatre. She didn’t always love what she saw, but she loved the experience of being in the theatre. She says that the reason they came to the US was that her mother loved American movies. Our film’s title, The Rest I Make Up, is taken from lyrics to one of Ireneʼs songs in Promenade: "I know everything. Half of it I really know, the rest I make up."
Martha: How active was Irene in the editing the piece?
Michelle: Irene started the editing process with us. She would watch the footage and sit with us. In Miami when I was going through footage, I would sit with her and her sister Carmen. We’d watch moments and I’d ask, “What do you think, this one or this one?”
As she was watching the footage she’d say, “That’s me! Look at me!” She knew how incredible she was. “I want more me!” she would say. “Enough of people talking. I want more me!”
When she stopped responding to the camera, that’s the end of shooting the film. Because that’s the collaboration. I had no interest in documenting something that she might not be aware of, or being a fly on the wall in a scene where she doesn’t know the camera’s there. That would have been a betrayal to our collaboration. The idea was not to document Irene’s decline in any way but is to document her vitality and her spirit and how much like her plays she actually is, in so many ways. Maintaining a sense of her dignity was always at the forefront in the editing process. To have it be a film for which Irene would be in the front row giving herself a standing ovation was the goal.
Martha: Describe some of your reactions during the MOMA screening.
Michelle: With a play, you have no idea how all the elements are going to come together on opening night. Are the actors going to be on point? Are the lights going to work? When you do a film that you’ve been working on for fifteen years, you think you know what you’ve made. The premiere event felt like we were at a play. It didn’t feel like a movie premiere, it felt like we were in a community of people that knew Irene, were fans of hers, or just knew me.
The laughter was really surprising to me. She’s hilarious, and there are funny moments, but people were laughing at things that I didn’t think they would be laughing at. People laughed at her response to her memory loss. I don’t think that people really anticipated that Irene was going to be so frank and candid about what was happening to her in the moment.
There’s a great quote that she has about one of her own plays, that humanity is much more moving when people aren’t crying over themselves. Irene doesn’t for a moment pity herself. She has moments where she’s really thoughtful about what’s happening to her, and sad, and they quickly turn into something else, which is a lot like her theatre. Before you can even digest that moment, you’re onto another moment where it’s completely flipped on its head.
As a filmmaker, you spend a lot of time in a little room with hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage, and you don’t know what you’re going to do with it, and finally you do something with it, and you don’t know how people are going to respond. It was a relief—there were no glitches in the film, the power didn’t go out, there was no missing footage. When the end credits came on, I just felt this dissolving from my shoulders: oh wow, the film is done.
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Thank you, Michelle Memran and Martha Steketee for your clarity of thinking on such a complex subject. Having known María Irene Fornés in the mid 70's, it was a revelation to see her infectious spirit as beautiful as it always had been... long before the Alzheimer's invasion. This is a splendid interview!
What a splendid interview! Thank you, Michelle Memran and Martha Steketee for your clarity of thinking on such a complex subject. Having known María Irene Fornés in the mid 70's, it was a revelation that her beautiful spirit seemed the same as it