Susan Lacy’s latest documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts, debuts on HBO in exactly a month. But that’s not the only major event coming up for the director in September. There’s also a little something called the Emmy Awards, where Lacy is in the running for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special for her HBO film on another cultural icon, Steven Spielberg.
“I’m trying not to think too much about it,” Lacy confesses of the Emmys. “I mean, it’s excellent competition, so we’ll just see where it goes.”
Lacy initially convinced Spielberg to participate in a handful of interviews—an achievement in itself because the filmmaker has rarely discussed his career at length. But they wound up doing more than a dozen interviews together totaling many hours, a process that yielded fresh insight into Spielberg’s personality and the way his films reflect his preoccupations, fears and anxieties.
“I must say Steven was very surprised, I think, at how much he revealed. He is not a revealing person,” Lacy notes. “And it wasn’t hard work. We had a really good time together.”
For over 30 years Lacy has been exploring the lives and work of leading cultural figures, most recently at HBO, and before that at PBS where she created the acclaimed series American Masters. As the Emmy voting period neared an end, Deadline spoke with Lacy about how she manages to create uniquely compelling portraits of some of the world’s foremost artists.
In the case of Jane Fonda and Steven Spielberg, these are people whose work and lives are quite well known to the public. How are you able to get to something new?
I don’t make the assumption that everybody is familiar. You can’t start with that. These are famous people, but I can’t tell you how many people did not know Jane’s story. Not everybody read her book…There were many people who did not know her mother had committed suicide. There were many people who did not know that she created the [Jane Fonda] workout tape to support the peace campaign and [her then husband] Tom Hayden’s bid for the senate.
With Steven, I thought, “How do I take Jaws and turn it into something that does give a new spin on it?” And the spin was Steven himself saying, “Every time I start a movie I’m scared… But there’s a good thing about being scared. When I’m scared I get my best ideas.”
How do you approach interviews?
I don’t ask rote questions. I try to get to the heart of someone. Sometimes it’s easier than other times. Jane is very comfortable talking about herself, not everyone is. That’s why I do a lot of interviews. I did 15 interviews with Steven Spielberg. At a certain point it’s no longer an interview, it’s a conversation.
If you’re going to keep somebody like Steven or Jane [talking], or any of the number of people I’ve made films about, you have to be interesting. It has to be an interesting experience for them. That means preparation, that you know what you’re talking about and you’ve done the hard work, you’ve looked at all the movies, you’re not asking the same questions they’ve answered 400,000 times. You’re doing something else.
How do you deal with delicate areas of a person’s life or experience?
I’m a sensitive person so I have a certain sensitivity to what are going to be sensitive issues. I think Vietnam is still sensitive for Jane and hard for her to talk about because it’s just such a shadow. I think talking about her mother’s suicide was really hard but I knew we had to since it’s the Rosebud of her life. [But] you don’t start off—I didn’t start off with Jane’s mother’s suicide.
I didn’t start off with Steven talking about the difficulties he had with his father. You get there. Some of it is just using good sense and sensitivity. I knew that Steven’s first marriage was tricky, his marriage to Amy [Irving]… I knew that was a sort of hard thing for him to talk about so I didn’t go right in on that one either.
What about addressing criticism of someone’s work?
Criticism is always a difficult thing. I don’t make valentines. I’m also not out to get anybody…In Steven’s case there is legitimate criticism of his work—not a lot, quite honestly. I think the thing that’s dogged him his whole life is his sentimentality and his need to put a bow on the end of things and I had Tom Stoppard, of all people, addressing it, his need for sentimentality.
I think those are always tricky areas—the lack of critical acceptance sometimes until finally you’ve done so much and you’ve become an elder and it sort of goes away. I think Steven had a hard time achieving that and that’s one of the reasons it took him so long to get an Oscar. He had five movies, I think, that were in the top selling movies of all time, before he got an Oscar.
Going back to your earliest days with American Masters, are there artists you wanted to profile but it just didn’t happen for one reason or another?
There are [a few] that come to mind. One was Johnny Cash. The other was Miles Davis. Those were two that I felt really belonged in the top tier of cultural impact in their own ways… The big one for me was Sinatra. That’s the one I wanted to make. Yeah, I really felt that I had the soul for that one. I love Frank Sinatra. I go to bed listening to his music and I play it all the time. My family is saying, “Isn’t there anything else we can listen to?” I really felt that I could do something special with that and that one eluded me.