“Sunset Over Mulholland Drive” is a behind-the-scenes look into the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund’s Hollywood retirement home and grounds. The piece was a German entry into the documentary spotlight at SXSW, directed by Uli Gaulke with writing assistance from Marc Pitzke. It was produced by Helge Albers. When I failed to gain entrance to “Us” (Express passes at SXSW went in 9 seconds!) this 97-minute documentary having its North American Premiere here was Plan B.
A look at the retirement community that is home to many of Hollywood’s former leading men and women sounded like it would be right up my alley. Director Gaulke admitted, in the Q&A after the film, that he was thinking about himself when he decided to make the film after he read an article about the motion picture retirement community in California. And now the documentary has had its North American premiere at SXSW. He had hit a bad patch, endured a divorce, and he was hitting mid-life.
The odd thing about the entire project is that it was made by Germans. (What’s up with that?) Uli read the article, contacted the home and, roughly 4 years and 70 to 80 hours of material later, after shooting for a year with 6 people traveling between Berlin and Hollywood, it premiered here at SXSW. The film inspired the director who said, “They were very open to telling me their stories. Then I found Jerry (Selby Kaufman), my favorite…They were not only thinking of their own past, but the most important part was to follow them and to see that they can be creative when they are old.”
[Whew! THAT was a load off my mind!]
The Q&A after the film was delightful because, besides speaking excellent English, Uli would punctuate his remarks at key points with a “Ya?” that was reminiscent of “Fargo.”
Uli said, “I always learn something. For me, personally, in my mid forties and fifties, I was glad to learn that life becomes a little more interesting, but that it is a continuation and that stamina is the key.” He added, “The challenge was getting them (the residents) to be working together and that was where the UCLA scriptwriting class helped.”
This reference was to a creative writing class that asked the residents to think of Ilsa and Rick from “Casablanca” and what they might be like if they met again twenty years in the future. This brought out a veritable plethora of ideas from the creative community. We also see the residents shooting a short film directed by Jerry (a former director) that is called “Santa for All Seasons,” where Santa’s close friends and wife and co-workers talk about him frankly.
One of my very favorite anecdotes in the film was provided by Joe Rosen, who became an apprentice film editor in 1957. He had a meeting with then-studio head Jack Warner and, during the course of their conversation, the subject turned to which actor should play a serious part then up for casting. Although Jason Robards was available, Jack Warner wanted to cast Troy Donahue, instead, causing Joe to say, “You have to be incompetent to make a statement like that!”
Joe Rosen was subsequently banned from the studio grounds.
We hear Wright King, now 94, telling us that he had wanted to be an actor since the age of 6 and that he once looked at Vivian Leigh onscreen in “Gone with the Wind” and said, “Some day I’m gonna’ kiss her onscreen.” And he did, in “On the Waterfront,” which we see in a brief film clip.
There is the charming older couple (married 62 years), Joel and Deborah Rogosin. Deborah is legally blind and Joel is obviously devoted to her, but he talks non-stop and she largely ignores him. One of the most touching moments in the film is when Joel sings “Always” to his bride: “Days may not be fair always. But I’ll be loving you always. Not for just an hour. Not for just a day. Not for just a year, but always.”
Joel finishes up that lovely serenade by saying, “I forget. Did you use the word ‘obey’ in our marriage ceremony?” Deborah responds that she most certainly did not, and Joel says, “Well, that accounts for it!” A gifted writer, Joel and Deborah have been working on a book together for most of their 62 years of marriage, entitled “How to Stay Married Without Killing Each Other.” They bicker over the title and the contents of each chapter. At one point, as they remember a long-ago romantic dance in the rain when they were young, Joel writes: “I wish that special glistening rain would fall and make us young and beautiful again.”
The entire documentary was delightful and charming. In retrospect, I’m glad I saw it instead of “Us,” (which opens wide soon.)
I highly recommend this stroll down memory lane in “Sunset Over Mulholland Drive.”