Photo credit: Courtesy of Kirschenbaum Productions
“I have good news and I have bad news for me,” Emmy award winning filmmaker/TV producer Gayle Kirschenbaum told Hollywood on the Potomac regarding her earliest remembrances of her childhood. “I have very vivid, very young memories. It was clear to me very, very young that something was wrong.” That something turned out to be her mother, which is the subject of her award winning film Look at Us Now, Mother. We sat down with Gayle prior to the grand success of the movie. Here is her story.
While walking through the baby section of a department store one day, she had very vivid flashback memories of a Bird Mobile. She recalled very distinctly reaching for it as an infant in her crib, only to have it yanked away when she was within touching distance. – she would then fall and the adults would laugh. Her mother would perpetually deny she ever had a Bird Mobile, but while researching her latest film, Look at Us Now, Mother, she went back through old 8 millimeter film footage of her childhood and there was mom, big as life, “pushing the bassinet with the bird mobile that she said I never had.”
Gayle Kirschenbaum with her mom
Her mom was looking forward to having Gary, she got Gayle.
“My whole movie is about forgiveness. I just want to say one thing that’s really important though,” she explained. “The one thing that I was clear about since I was young and that I felt – which was a good thing – I didn’t feel it was my fault. I felt like there was something wrong with her and with them.” That is not to say, however, that her childhood didn’t leave scars, it did. “I would say my two big issues are abandonment and trust. I thought I was abandoned by my real parents.
It took me getting me into doing research, doing genealogy research, digging up death certificates and saying, ‘Hey, Mom, you were seven when your sister died. That sounds very young.’ I think it’s her own wounds from her childhood,” Gayle explained . “She had a lot of tragedy in her childhood that unfolds in the film that she actually blanked out. She repeatedly says, ‘I don’t know, I don’t remember.’ That’s her automatic response.”
“I will confess my childhood fantasy was to be a movie star,” she told us. “Of the generation I am, after I saw the movie “Gigi” I came home and I said, ‘You have to call me Gigi.’ I was five. My mother said, ‘You’re going to be a schoolteacher.’ It was the career that women had then. You know, you get married, have babies, and go back to it. I left home very young.
I re-framed how I looked at the world and people, I didn’t have fear. I think Maya Angelou always said to accomplish anything in life, you need courage and to be able to forgive. So once I re-framed how I looked at humanity and people, the fear factor was gone.”
“I have inherited a lot of her qualities,” she admitted, “and hopefully some of them are good. She is one of the smartest people I know, by the way, and funniest, which she wasn’t then.
She always stayed in communication with me, even when I went off to college young. She always communicated. She never cut off communication, and I always communicated.
I had light bulb moments over the years that helped me deal with her because I spent a lot of time crying. One of my moments, or one thing that happened, was in my early 30s when I was living in Los Angeles. I met a woman who also had a not good childhood and she became a facilitator for a board game and you play it with someone else, and when you throw the dice and you land somewhere, you have to do what it tells you to do. She said, ‘Stand up, close your eyes, imagine your mother is a little girl.’
At that point, I had dug into her past, I had started to uncover the skeletons. So I already saw a child who was wounded, who had been exposed to a lot of things at a very young age, who had poverty, had death, had a lot of things. So I saw a wounded child. Then she said, ‘Imagine yourself as a child.’ It was like, oh boy, I knew my pain really well. Then she says, ‘You come together, come together.’ That was so interesting because she was no longer my mother. We were 2 wounded children. So it was reframing how I looked at her. That was huge.”
“That was a big moment for me,” she continued, “and I realized when I looked at her differently and I changed my expectations of her, I started to get to a place where I was able the forgive her. I worked on it, and I worked on that. I realized, wow, this is working, I’m changing how I look at her. That was the key, and that was a light bulb moment, and then I worked on it. The fights continued, and continued. We still have it out, but we love each other very much. We say anything and everything to each other, but I’ve rendered her abuse powerless because I look at her differently.
Yesterday was her 91st birthday. My mom is hysterical. She’s the queen of the one-liners. In my film, you cry, you laugh, you cry, it’s a hard film but there’s humor in it, and it’ll leave you with laughter.”
We asked Gayle to map out a scenario with her mother today. How would the evening go if you went out to dinner together?
“She would want to sit at the bar,” she answered. “My mother is extremely social, so she would want to go across the street to the wonderful little Italian restaurant. She no longer wants to sit at a table. She wants to sit at the bar, and have her dinner and her wine there. She wants to sit at the center of the bar, so she could talk to people, and yeah, she would be incredibly friendly to everybody. Everyone would be hugging or loving her by the time we left, or I’d leave her because I have to go somewhere else and she’ll go by herself. So it would be eating, talking, and then she’d probably get engaged with somebody else.”
“I have to let you know,” she added, ” that since my father passed away in 2006, we have become each other’s travel companions. She’s my favorite person to travel with. She’s extremely adventurous. She used to have a travel agency. My mom actually just had surgery at 91, and she lives alone in Boca Raton – she drives, she’s at the athletic center 7 o’clock am. Then she comes home and does her stocks and puts and options,”
Then she does her stocks and puts in options, which I have no idea what that is, then it’s lunch at the clubhouse, then it’s work in the afternoon, which is like cards and mahjong. Then it’s happy hour, then it’s dinner with the girls. She’s active.”
Gayle went on to interview other people’s stories which eventually led her to doing her own. “I remember doing a film about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. This was for Lifetime when I had a series called Intimate Portraits. I was always very good at getting great interviews. I sat with Carrie and I remember her publicist was on the couch and Debbie just flew in because Debbie lived in Vegas and she’s pacing outside. Carrie’s opening up, I’m asking her questions. The publicist is going, ‘I can’t believe she’s telling you this.’ Carrie goes, ‘My therapist is in Costa Rica.’ I’ve always been the confidante for people that share their deep dark secrets. People pick up on your sensitivity and they feel safe and comfortable.”
Now, in a roundabout way, this takes us back to the NOSE. “She (her mother) started on this campaign to get me to have a nose job since I was 13. Of course, at the time when I was growing up and at the place I was growing up, Doctor Diamond was doing everybody’s noses, and my junior high school year book and high school year book were before and after pictures for nose jobs. With that said, I actually had a fight to keep my imperfect and original nose, but her campaign continued on for decades. Pretty relentless, but never bothered me. I didn’t even hear it.”
“Actually, in Washington,” she added, “we were on the cover of The Washington Post Style section when I made a funny movie. This is what I’m leading up to. I made a funny movie called “My Nose.” I finally agreed to go to 3 plastic surgeons, if they let me bring a crew. So I had crews with me and I cut a funny movie together, really for her (her mother), because she was convinced that everyone agrees with her, if I had a nose job, my life would be better. I made the movie and it ended up getting loved and won awards and was all over the world. When it premiered in Washington, it was at the Jewish Film Festival. So I ended up on the cover of The Washington Post Style section with my profile in front of the Indian profile.
The Nose has now morphed into a full length feature film: “Look at Us Now, Mother” and had its first private screening in Beverly Hills in September. This week alone the film has earned two prestigious awards.