Some Kind of Heaven is a portrait of four misfit seniors living in The Villages, an extensive retirement community in Central Florida. It’s director Lance Oppenheim‘s debut feature following his success with several shorts. Though a documentary, it veers into complex aesthetic territory, utilizing cinematic tools more commonly associated with fiction. This blend of visual languages lends itself well to a conversation around documentary ethics. What choices are made behind the camera when attempting to depict some version of the truth? As a filmmaker myself, these issue fascinate me, so I reached out to Oppenheim to discuss them further.
Hyperallergic: Would you say rather than just setting up the camera to capture ‘reality,’ that you are instead creating an atmosphere for your subjects to perform as themselves within?
Lance Oppenheim: Yeah, a big part of my process is finding these larger-than-life subjects, people who have the capacity and desire to perform. I’d say most of the subjects of Some Kind of Heaven are natural-born performers.
H: Given that your film centers the experiences of seniors, do you think being 24 years old restricted your point of view? Or was it in some way a benefit?
LO: It was interesting. I was the exact age that a lot of people in the community were attempting to revert back to. There was a kind of Peter Pan syndrome at play. I didn’t have their specific point of view from my own experience, but there was an interesting sort of melding of minds that took place. A lot of what I was observing reminded me of sequences straight out of a John Hughes movie. So in that sense, I felt closer to their experiences than you might expect.
H: Do you think you would have made the same film without the incredible industry support you had, such as the New York Times and Darren Aronofsky? From a quick glance at IMDb, it looks like your crew was actually quite minimal.
LO: The resources, which we were incredibly lucky to have, mostly went toward lengthening our post-production schedule, where we had more time to figure out what we were exactly doing. It didn’t change the way we were shooting the film. We still ate McDonald’s every day and lived in the same houses in The Villages that we were shooting in. It definitely enabled me to make exactly the film I wanted to make, though, which is an immense privilege that not every first-time filmmaker gets to have.
H: From my point of view as a filmmaker, it seems the major benefit would come from the distribution and how those names legitimize your film right out the gate.
LO: Absolutely. That’s a huge part of it. And it’s not like Darren or the New York Times just showed up on my doorstep one day and were like, “Hey, can I produce your film?” I definitely subscribed to the beg, cheat, and steal method. It’s about doing whatever you possibly can to get your work in front of people. From my earliest short films, I was trying to get in touch with Darren. Similarly, I would reach out to Vimeo Staff Picks and say, “Hey, thanks for putting up my previous film” — they never put up my previous film, but I was now on their radar. It took a long time to get a response from anybody.
H: Can you talk about staging? For example, I’d love to hear how the scene at the hair salon came together.
LO: That was a case of incredible editing by my editor Daniel Garber. I wanted to establish Barbara trying to get out into the world again after becoming widowed. But the chemistry she had with the golf cart shop attendant I never could have predicted or manipulated. She was genuinely so excited about it, so when we filmed her at the hair salon, it naturally poured out of her to the stylist. It just so happened that those two scenes cut together perfectly to sell that narrative.
H: It seems like you’re attempting to create authenticity by using the visual language to replicate what your subjects are experiencing, rather than just depict the reality of the situation.
LO: Exactly. I wouldn’t say I have the power to show everything that Barbara was feeling in that one moment, but I do think this is an example of how the stylistic approach we used, which might seem artificial, can actually get to something more real.
H: In documentary filmmaking, gaining consent from subjects is a tricky subject. You can get someone’s permission without them really understanding what impact that might have on their life. How did you work to ensure your subjects were aware of what they were giving consent to, given the scope of your project?
LO: This film started off as my college thesis. When I initially approached my subjects, I assumed this was going to be a 10-minute short. So as things evolved, I kept all of them up to date with the expanding scope. Prior to the premiere, I went back to The Villages and showed everyone the cut and got their notes about what they liked and didn’t like. It was a very gradual process, and they were all extremely involved throughout.
H: Now that it’s out, do you know how they all feel?
LO: They became like family to me. We still talk frequently, and now there is more of a mutual exchange. Reggie and Anne went and saw it opening weekend at a local theater. They bought a new TV and speaker setup so they could watch the film at home on repeat. I think Barbara and Dennis don’t just see it as a film they are in, but rather something they had a hand in creating, so they feel very proud of it. The one thing that is slightly uncomfortable for them is that some other people in The Villages, who feel an intense ownership of the community, don’t feel like I represented their points of view. Some of their neighbors have said the film is “fake news” — also due to the connection with the New York Times.
H: Did you ever feel like you were invasive, or that you might have crossed the line?
LO: We captured a lot of moments where our subjects allowed my crew and I to bear witness to really painful situations. That itself felt invasive, especially when working with subjects who would sometimes demand to be filmed doing things that were destructive. Nevertheless, it was important to me that we presented those moments in a similar way to how we experienced them on the ground. I didn’t want to defang the tension there.
H: I know it’s controversial, but I’m wondering if we should start having the conversation about whether subjects who inhabit these types of highly collaborative roles should be compensated for their labor. What are your thoughts on that?
LO: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know if I have a clear answer, as I do see the potential pitfalls of paying a subject and having them work in a more structured way on a production, which may violate the authenticity of what’s going on. But in the case of our film, these folks gave up months of their lives, they were so insanely dedicated to the process of making a movie. They made themselves completely available to us. I do think there should be some reward for it rather than just articles written about me, the director making this movie, you know?