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Athena Film Festival / Judy Blume Forever : Q&A with Director/Producer Davina Pardo and Producer Marcella Steingart

Synopsis : The radical honesty of the books by trailblazing author Judy Blume changed the way millions of adolescent readers understood themselves, their sexuality, and what it meant to grow up, but also led to critical battles against book banning and censorship.

Genre: Documentary, Biography
Original Language: English
Director:Davina Pardo, Leah Wolchok
Producer: Sara Bernstein, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Davina Pardo, Marcella Steingart, Justin Wilkes, Leah Wlchok.
Q&A with Director/Producer Davina Pardo and Producer Marcella Steingart

Q: Can you tell us a little bit how you got involved in the film. Was it a good story? 

DP: Yeah. For me, the story is much richer. I wanted to [tell the story] for thirty years. Then about five years ago, I was on a road trip, a very long road trip, to Nova Scotia with my family. It might interest you to know I had a rule which was a terrible idea. I started playing audio books, and I decided on a whim to play Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing [1972] and when I hit “Play” I discovered that Judy narrated for herself. She’s got such a beautiful, effervescent voice and the kids fell in love with it. I had to go with this reaction to hearing that book again for the first time in so long, seeing how my kids responded to it, and then realizing there’s a person behind these characters. And I suddenly wanted to know everything I could about Judy.

Q: Marcella, how did you get involved? 

MS: I came on later, so once the project had gotten green-lit and Davina was already on [it], they came to me and asked me to be a producer. I was very excited — I was a huge Judy Blume fan, I read all her books. And I’m also obsessed with that time period kids on the cusp — I think that’s a really rich time period and I feel like I’m kind of stuck there, even though I’m way older than that. So I jumped at the chance. I was like, this is going to be incredible — and it was an incredible journey to go on. 

Q: It took you awhile to get Judy to agree to do this. How long? 

DP: Almost two years. 

Q: And you had to reach out to her, email her constantly, talk to her. She’s such a natural, but she was very reluctant. So did you get her to agree?

DP: I think one of my friends here probably heard me talk about it through those two years. I wrote a “Dear Judy” letter like so many before me have, I sent her an email. Her initial response was “Thank you for your email. I’m tempted, but I’m just not sure I want to open my life to a documentary right now. I love my book store and I have a busy life. I’m just not sure.” But she never said no, and I always felt like the door was open. We stayed in touch over about a year and a half, got to know each other, and finally got to meet in person. It was still amazing to me 

Then I realized that I needed institutional support. Doing this on my own as an independent filmmaker wasn’t quite [conducive to] the deal. I had a relationship with Sara Bernstein, who runs Imagine Documentaries, and I had a hunch. She’s a Jersey girl, she’s my age, and I had a hunch that she would be interested in this idea. So I took it to her and Imagine came on, and together we convinced Judy finally to say yes in February 2020. And we know what happens after that. 

Q: It was a good time in some way because then you could spend your time really deepening your knowledge about Judy until you could shoot the film. 

MS: Yeah, there’s so much to learn about Judy, and when you read over her books, as Davina said, you know her books but you don’t know who she is. There’s so much archival — she wrote 29 books. Now I didn’t read all 29, but reading all her books, there’s still a lot to dive into. And it really takes you back, also, to that place when you were a kid, so it’s this whole thing. She’s got this magic. 

Q: You used a lot of letters from the kids. Can you talk about how you came to that device as the through-line? 

DP: Somewhere during those two years of talking with Judy, I found out that her archive was at Yale and I went up. I went to the library just to take a peek at what was there. I heard about the letters, and Judy published a book of letters. [Letter to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You, 1986]. We don’t get into the book in the film, but there is a published book of letters where she’s changed any identifying details to protect the letter writers. 

But I wanted to see the letters myself when I went to Yale, as soon as I saw what was there, there’s so much more than I could have imagined, and it’s extraordinary. There were boxes upon boxes upon boxes, organized by subject matter — everything from “I Hate My Sibling” to the most serious, intense things that kids were going through. So once we knew that was there, we knew that the letter writers were going to become almost like a character of their own in the film. 

Q: How did you make the decision to reach out to the letter writers? 

MS: We went to Judy for help, because there’s a huge privacy clause. We couldn’t just look at these letters and reach out to people, so we asked Judy who she thought would be appropriate or amenable to speaking with us. She had a couple of people who she had maintained long-term relationships with and she reached out to them and [asked] would it be okay. So we started reaching out right away to Lori [sp?], I think, to be in the film with her letters. Judy had suggested Lori, and she’s such an incredible character. Then Judy mentioned a couple of other people and we reached out to them. The two women in there were the people who agreed, and we formed that relationship with them. 

Q: There’s a quote, “It was never just about the books. It was also about the people who experienced them, how they experienced them, and their own coming of age.” Her stuff is so relatable [to so many different kinds of people]. What have you learned about people, what Judy meant to them? 

DP: I was surprised at all the different ages of people, and also the force of the emotional response. People — men, women, younger, kids — being really, really moved. There was this woman at Sundance, she’s a young woman. I don’t remember exactly where she grew up, but she grew up in a country that didn’t allow her the possibility to read this. She said that she didn’t know about her body, and she didn’t know these things. That really made a big impact, and she was very emotional about it. She was giving these books to her daughter now. I think I was surprised at the extent of that. 

MS: It’s interesting, because kids today have so many more choices about what they read. Judy still meets their needs for a lot of them. There’s such a wider range of voices, and that’s wonderful, really important for them, because of Judy. Kids are able to find emotional resonance in her work, and also maybe also find their own experience reflected in someone else’s book and they have both of those options, which is really incredible. 

Q: What did you learn from or about Judy that really surprised you? 

DP: There are several things, but I was in love with her relationship with George. I was going, what is this? This is the template to the perfect marriage. I guess third time’s the charm. But they were just so in love, and that was really inspiring and charming. 

Also, I think how down to earth she was and how much she still maintains a childlike quality of wonder and curiosity. Affiliation with children, young people, was really present when we were around her. She had me fall under her spell a little bit. 

MS: I don’t think I knew her books were censored when I was growing up. I had access to all the books — except Forever [1975]. I never read Forever, I think somebody hid it from me. But that’s the one book I didn’t read, until I started researching this project. I guess I was young enough at that point that those years had kindof slid by me without me realizing what was going on. That was a huge surprise and its come back and makes [blood boil]. 

Q: There’s a fictional film of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret [1970] [“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret?, dir. Kelly Fremon Craig] opening next month, and then your film. That’s amazing. Did you know that that was happening? What are your thoughts on that? 

DP: I think Kelly Fremon Craig, who directed the Margaret movie, was writing to Judy at the same time I was writing to Judy. It was all happening at once, and Judy’s take — which I think is very true — is that these kids who grew up reading her books are now in positions of power and are able to make decisions about these projects, and they’re making them happen. I think that’s part of it. 

And then the other part is that Judy herself is excited by it. She’s ready to do all of this. 

Q: Is this the first movie [based on] Judy’s books that has been made? 

DP: No. It’s the first big one [feature film]. There was a Forever movie [“Forever”, CBS TV movie, 1978]. But this is a big Hollywood film. 

MS: Didn’t her son, Larry, adapt Tiger Eyes? [“Tiger Eyes” directed by Lawrence Blume, 2012]

DP: Yeah. 

Q: So why do you think Judy is so enduring? 

DP: I guess she struck a chord at a certain time. She started writing in 1970, and I think that was a time period like the librarian said: where the inner lives of children and girls were given respect, and she sortof opened that door and [re]wrote the word “children”. I remember reading the books I had to read, and then I was like, Judy Blume books are mine and that struck a chord. And they’re so readable. And then I’m thinking they were massively consumed, and then I think parents, moms, passed them on to their kids, and it just continued. Her characters are really relatable and there’s an authenticity there that really resonates and endures. 

MS: She remembers everything about childhood, and not only does she remember — do you remember we went to her house, the house she grew up in in Elizabeth, New Jersey? She was looking out the window and she named every single person on the walk and which house they lived in, and she remembered all of that. But it’s not just those details that she remembers. She remembers what it felt like, whatever it is — feeling like your parents aren’t listening to you, or your siblings ganging on you, or what it’s like to want — any of it. So she put those feelings into her books in a way that struck a chord. That’s hard to do.  

Q: In Florida her books have been banned. Is this film going to be widely distributed? 

DP: It does have distribution. It’s going to be on Amazon on April 21st, so hopefully it will have a wide audience. 

MS: We are hoping to have more screenings. We’re going to Miami tomorrow.

Q: The letters are so amazing, and there are so many of them. Did she catalog everything herself or does she have assistants to help with all of that? 

DP: Yale took them and kept them in the organizational way that she left them. They were grouped loosely by year and by subject matter. But there were so many of them. Thousands and thousands and thousands. It would be great if they could be scanned and then there’d be the ability to word-search. 

This was also something Leah [Wolchok], the other director, and I eventually fell in love with: the handwriting. There’s such a vulnerability and tangible quality to these kids who are writing their deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings, some really grim. But they’re like, bubbly handwriting or they’re like C3PO or like a unicorn. It’s just that they’re beautiful to look at. 

Q: Can people go there and read them? Those people may be still living. Can people go into the library and read them? How does that work? 

DP: You have to speak to the Yale archivist, and you have to sign something — a specific thing saying you’re not going to take any pictures, and you’re not going to reveal anything. You can’t reach out to any of these people or do anything with these letters. They’re pretty protected, as is Judy. 

Q: It seems like there’s so much of her life to tell. How did you decide what parts of her story to include and what parts not to include? 

DP: We talked about a lot — my co-director, Leah, and our editing team and Marcella, because with 29 books, you don’t want it to become like an encyclopedia —  go from book to book to book to book. But we wanted to make sure to cover what we felt were the most important books, and also the books that really intersected with Judy’s life in some ways. So we were thinking of the best conversation between Judy’s life and Judy’s books — what can you learn about Judy’s life from her books and what were the books telling us about her life — finding those points of connection. That’s what helped us narrow it down. 

MS: We also wanted to talk about censorship in the past and in the present. That was something that we wanted to put in there as well. 

Check out more of Nobuhiro’s articles.

Nobuhiro Hosoki
Nobuhiro Hosokihttps://www.cinemadailyus.com
Nobuhiro Hosoki grew up watching American films since he was a kid; he decided to go to the United States thanks to seeing the artistry of Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange.” After graduating from film school, he worked as an assistant director on TV Tokyo’s program called "Morning Satellite" at the New York branch office but he didn’t give up on his interest in cinema. He became a film reporter for via Yahoo Japan News. In that role, he writes news articles, picks out headliners for Yahoo News, as well as interviewing Hollywood film directors, actors, and producers working in the domestic circuit in the USA. He also does production interviews for Japanese distributors of American films and for in-theater on-sale programs. He is now the editor-in-chief of Cinemadailyus.com while continuing his work for Japan.


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