To know Gilda Radner was to adore her. To not know Gilda Radner was to love her. Cancer is devastating but something happens when someone who has brought so much joy to so many people gets sick. It’s not worse, or more difficult, it just feels impossible. Gilda Radner was a trailblazer and then she quietly got cancer. She then publicly had cancer which is a strange gift to give the world, but that’s just who Gilda was. A giver of gifts, odd or otherwise. Lisa D’Apolito is the director of Love, Gilda…a documentary about her life and death told via her own home movies, diaries and of course friends. What better way to learn about Gilda than through Gilda.
BYT and Landmark Theatres are bringing you a free screening of Love, Gilda Monday September 17 at Landmark Atlantic Plumbing Cinema, as part of our Bentzen Ball Comedy Festival Warm Up. RSVP HERE to attend and catch Love, Gilda in theaters September 21
Brightest Young Things: This started via an INDIEGOGO campaign 3 years ago. Did it take that long to get the film made? This is a very beautiful movie and I feel like everyone should want to give you money for it.
Lisa D’Apolito: It was a whole bunch of different things. Now I’m glad that it took this long because it took a long time to find all the materials and to get people on board. There were so many times when I just wanted to finish the film with what I had.
It’s interesting that you brought up the INDIEGOGO because that was the original way I was able to start the film. My background was in commercials and branded content so this is my first film that has seen the light of day because the others were corporate films. There was a lot of resistance in the beginning from people saying they didn’t know who Gilda is. No one under 40 knows who she is. There was a lot of that and the interviews came over a period of time. Each interview made the film stronger so as I started to get momentum it started to go from there.
BYT: You seem to have access to seemingly her entire life in many different mediums. I think the voiceover is her because she did some recordings of herself so everything you hear is Gilda. How did you amass such a wide array of material? It was really special.
LD: I have to thank Gilda’s estate. They had all these boxes that had been in storage since she passed away in 1989. About halfway through the film I was gonna finish it as a shorter film and I asked Gilda’s brother Michael if he had anything that was personal. It took a while to convince him to go into his storage unit.
BYT: Yeah that would be really hard to do no matter when that was.
LD: Exactly, and her best friend Judy, who was in the film, was really supportive too. So Judy and I said we’d come too. We went and there were many many boxes which a lot didn’t have to do with the film. In Gilda’s book she wrote she recorded her 9th chemotherapy and I thought “Wow, imagine if that’s in these boxes.” Michael had several boxes of videos he had recorded of everything of her on television. It was really overwhelming and I couldn’t find that tape and there were other tapes I was looking for that I wish I had found.
BYT: Which ones?
LD: There’s one of Gilda, she writes in her book how she recorded herself playing tennis.
BYT: Oh the one she watched during chemo so she could remind herself that she was a person, not just a sick person.
LD: Judy picks up a VHS that reads “Gilda’s 9th Chemotherapy” and said “Is this what you’re looking for?” And I think I said “Oh my God I wonder if it’s on here.” I was in Detroit and I was getting on a plane and they wanted to check my bag and I told them I couldn’t. I was that paranoid. When I got home I put it in the VCR and saw Gilda in her hospital gown and then I made an appointment to have it transferred the next day. I was worried it would fall apart. It was a 20 minute film she edited about her 9th chemotherapy. Then I had her book…
BYT: I read a Rolling Stone piece that came out after her death and in it the writer talked about working with her to write the book and he mentioned meeting her at this healthy restaurant, The Good Earth, to do it.
LD: It’s not there anymore! Which is sad. I asked Michael about some little cassette tapes I saw in his boxes.
BYT: That sounds crazy but when you’re dying I imagine the desire to leave things behind is probably very overwhelming and it was different then of course.
LD: Michael sent me a box of tapes and it turned out to be the conversations with the Rolling Stone writer. Unfortunately almost all of them were damaged but you can still hear her whole story. Once I heard it I knew I really wanted to tell her story from her point of view. Michael also had a box of every interview Gilda ever did so I started emailing journalists to see if they had the tapes from when they interviewed her. Two of them did. The audio on the documentary is actually made up of about 20 different interviews.
BYT: It sounds like she’s narrating her own documentary. It’s a little eerie but beautiful. How did this start for you? Were you a fan?
LD: I knew who she was of course, I knew her characters. I was working at an ad agency and we started doing pro bono videos for Gilda’s Club. I would interview the members of Gilda’s Club and they would talk about her as if they knew her. They all read her book and they all had the same journey as her. She really inspired people who were going through the darkest times. Because it’s Gilda it makes talking about cancer very public. I just thought she had such a unique story.
BYT: Even beyond the cancer, she was one of the first cast members on Saturday Night Live and it’s not just the story of Gilda Radner getting sick…it’s the story of Gilda Radner. It was really thrilling hearing these stories about how she started. Our young interns asked me who Gilda Radner was and I said that’s what the documentary is for. Then I sighed.
LD: I think that’s also why I did the film. I wanted to see all sides of her but the development of her SNL characters was fascinating.
BYT: It was interesting seeing how she had to interact with all these men in the Boys Club, when they asked her to be on SNL they said “Do you want to be the girl?” I loved the excerpt from Gilda’s diary that Amy Poehler read “I’ve always wanted to be a girl. I never wanted to be anything else.” In terms of who was involved in the documentary, did you reach out to as many folks as you could? I know Lorne Michaels is pretty private so it must have been pretty special.
LD: Oh yes, it’s a huge deal. He didn’t do it for me he did it for Gilda. He did it because he loved her. Lorne also came to the premiere. Supposedly he loved the film. My producer James was able to get Amy Poehler and I said yes, right away. That was towards the end of the shooting where we really had the story together and Amy was just amazing.
BYT: You can tell by the look on her face, and everyone’s faces, who were holding Gilda’s actual diary that it meant a lot to them.
LD: I didn’t know it was going to mean so much. With Amy I wasn’t sure how she would feel about reading Gilda’s diary so my producer suggested I read something to Amy from her diaries and she how she reacts to it. So I said “This is Gilda’s diary,” and she said “That’s Gilda’s diary???” and she went for it. I did that for everyone involved and then I let them look through the diaries and read something that spoke to them. For example Bill Hader read about being neurotic.
BYT: As far as the original cast of Saturday Night Live goes, obviously Belushi is no longer here. You were able to speak to Laraine Newman. Did you ask Dan Aykroyd? Jane Curtain? I know it’s a bit of a sticky wicket with Bill Murray because they dated.
LD: I wanted all of them in the film and a friend of Gilda’s thought it would be important to have Bill.
BYT: Yeah that was my first thought, where is Bill Murray?
LD: His very close friends who were able to ask him said “You’ll never get him. He’ll never do it.” I saw this other documentary about him, how he shows up at parties.
BYT: Yeah there’s a weird phone number you have to call to reach him.
LD: I call the number all the time.
[We proceed to call Bill Murray’s weird 800 number. The outgoing message is: You are calling Bill Murray’s 800 number. To leave a message please press 1. We do not leave a message.]
LD: So Jane turned us down twice and a friend of mine ran into her and told her about the documentary. Jane said “I’m so excited about your friend’s film. I think Gilda deserves it but I’m a very private person and I love Gilda so much. It’s just too emotional.” Dan Aykroyd we never heard from.
BYT: Another favorite line of mine from the documentary is about how Ghostbusters was a hard movie for Gilda to watch because she dated the entire cast. Her life was thrilling. Is there something you chose not to put in the movie or is there something you came across that surprised you?
LD: What surprised me was her eating disorder. In her book she has two lines about it but in 1978 at the height of her fame she checked herself into a hospital for her eating disorder. That was shocking. I think I tried to be as true to Gilda as I imagined her to be. I don’t think there’s anything I left out that would be…the thing is I really wanted her to tell the hardest parts.
BYT: The relationship in the movie that spoke to me the most was her relationship with her dog Sparkle. I have a dog I’m obsessed with and I saw shades of my future in this documentary. That relationship really moved me in a way that is probably embarrassing.
LD: Absolutely not. Sparkle needs to get an award for Best Dog.