[Filmmaker Sarah Kernochan will answer questions following screenings of her films IMPROMPTU at 5:30 pm and MARJOE at 8:30 pm on Saturday March 23rd at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]
Interview by Bob Ignizio
At the age of 24 Sarah Kernochan co-produced and directed MARJOE, a film about evangelist (and later B-movie actor) Marjoe Gortner. Released in 1972, the film went on to win the “Best Documentary Feature” Oscar in 1973 for Sarah and her filmmaking partner Howard Smith. She then went on to release two albums on RCA records as a singer-songwriter, and in 1977 her novel Dry Hustle was published.
After a little more than a decade away from movie making, Sarah wrote her first screenplay for the 1986 hit film 9 1/2 WEEKS, and from there went on to write or co-write several more films, including the critically acclaimed SOMMERSBY (co-written with Nicholas Meyer and adapted from the 1982 film THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE) and the hit thriller WHAT LIES BENEATH? (co-written with Clark Gregg). In 2002 she won her second Oscar, this one in the “Best Documentary Short” category, for Thoth, about the life of New York-based street performer S. K. Thoth. More recently in 2011, Sarah's second novel Jane Was Here was published. And those are just some of the highlights of what can only be described as a varied and interesting career.
Sarah Kernochan will be at the Cleveland Cinematheque on Saturday March 23rd for screenings of IMPROMPTU, a film she wrote the screenplay for that was directed by her husband James Lapine, at 5:30 pm followed by MARJOE at 8:30 pm. Sarah will answer questions after both films. In the meantime, I had the opportunity to ask Sarah a few questions of my own via email, and she was kind enough to answer.
CLEVELAND MOVIE BLOG: So seriously, what haven't you done? You've been a journalist, a filmmaker, a musician, and a novelist that I know of. What compels you to keep doing different things? Do you ever regret that you haven't been more focused on just one?
SARAH KERNOCHAN: Well, I haven't conducted a symphony orchestra, which is disappointing. Seriously, to someone else it may appear that my career is a jumble, but to me it's all storytelling. Still, people who like to categorize are very cross with me. Even my individual films are all over the place: erotica, horror, teen comedy, biography, ballet, tragedy. I don't take a job unless I'm going to learn something new.
CMB: Since I'm mainly concerned with the movie side of things here, what was the main thing that got you interested in making movies? Who were your big influences in that respect?
SK: Like Spielberg (and this will be the last time I compare myself to him) I made 8mm films in boarding school to entertain all us cooped-up girls. Actually, Glenn Close was a classmate and I made the first movie she ever starred in - though I don't think you'll find it on imdb.com. My only influence was LAWRENCE OF ARABIA which, even today, I consider the ne plus ultra of cinema.
At that time there was no evidence of women directing films, so I thought I would be a novelist. It was a complete surprise to find myself making a documentary at age 24.
CMB: How did you wind up doing a film on Marjoe Gortner, and what interested you about him? What did you hope the movie would achieve?
SK: My co-producer-director Howard Smith had a radio show. A would-be actor approached him for an interview. The young man had an interesting story to tell: he had been a preacher since the age of 4, a big hit in the Bible Belt, and now he (Marjoe) wanted to blow the lid off the whole business. I convinced Howard we should shoot a documentary about Marjoe. Neither of us knew anything about how to make a documentary, and we'd never been within a zillion miles of a Pentacostal church. But Marjoe was such a charming con artist with such a unique tale. We hoped that people should have a peep at the underbelly of religion. We thought the movie might help the victims: a sort of voyage of the scammed.
CMB: I would imagine when making a documentary, especially a biographical one like MARJOE, it can be hard knowing when to stop filming. How did you know you had reached the end of the story you wanted to tell about Marjoe, and given his interesting path as a cult actor after your film, do you ever wish you had kept filming, or at least done a follow up of some kind?
SK: We had to shoot the film quickly. Since the whole crew was pretending to be born-again Christians, we were always afraid of being found out. Really, it was a great relief to get it over with. I'm glad we got what we needed, and I wouldn't have continued filming for love or money.
CMB: Are you surprised that, despite exposés like MARJOE, people still buy into that kind of religious snake oil?
SK: There is a beautiful unity of spirit and catharsis at the heart of these meetings. People feel they can rise above their (often difficult) lives. But it's like they have to take a messed-up drug to get there, and their dealer - the preacher - is manipulating them for profit. So I understand why the parishioners get hooked and choose to believe, because the alternative is to be shut out of community and thumped back into the reality of suffering.
CMB: The conventional wisdom, I suppose, is that after winning an Oscar, you'd capitalize on that. You, however, didn't get back into the movies until 1986 with your screenplay for 9 1/2 WEEKS. Why didn't you keep going in film, and what finally brought you back?
SK: As I said, there was no welcome in the film business for women of ambition. I split up with my partner Howard after making MARJOE, and I think the assumption was that he did all the work and I tagged along. This is pre-women's liberation. So while Howard got another film to direct, the Oscar did next to nothing for me. It made me into a kind of curiosity, and that was useful for getting me into people's offices to peddle my wares. Female singer-songwriters were big in the recording industry, I had a bunch of songs, so my 15 minutes of fame bought me an audition. The result was a recording contract and my next career.
CMB: I read in a 1998 Salon interview that you weren't particularly thrilled with 9 1/2 WEEKS and look at it as more of a learning experience. Nonetheless, it's one of those films that, love it or hate it, has become very much ingrained in pop culture. What is it about that movie that you think connects with so many people? Is it just the illusion of its relatively safe kink being somehow dangerous, or is there something at the heart of the movie that goes deeper than that?
SK: I thought the film began really well but the rest was just arty vamping until the non-conclusion. Still, it was made with great style and atmosphere, and basically just turned people on, which is the job of erotica after all. Mainstream erotica is an oxymoron in American cinema. I don't think there's been a single mass-audience sex film between 9 1/2 WEEKS and 50 SHADES OF GRAY. If the latter is a huge hit then finally America will start making the kinds of films that Europe has been making for decades.
CMB: Having been both a writer and director, do you find it difficult to turn over a screenplay to someone else and more or less lose control of it?
SK: The scripts I'm hired to write don't belong to me. I always accepted the possibility of losing control of them. That's why screenwriters often feel like whores. We get paid a lot of money to have no pride.
CMB: Did you write IMPROMTU with the idea of your husband James Lapine directing it in mind, or did it just work out that way after the fact? What are the pros and cons of working on a film project with someone you're married to?
SK: James had always encouraged me to turn down work-for-hire and write a script for myself. IMPROMPTU was the first time I had no employer to please, and I owned what I wrote. I had a ball scripting that one, and in my gratitude I gave it to James.
That said, making the film was a tough test of our marriage. I didn't always know my place. I will admit to having a few hissies over why he shot this scene that way or why he didn't shoot that scene this way. Sometimes I was frustrated that I wasn't the director, but then I would have had to deal with Judy Davis and I wouldn't have traded places with James for anything. In the end he did a fantastic job and really respected the writer's work. Or else.
CMB: Finally in 1998 you directed again, this time a fiction film (THE HAIRY BIRD aka ALL I WANNA DO). Why did it take so long for you to finally get back in the director's chair?
SK: It took seven years to get a production of what was a larky, fun, commercial teen comedy. The trouble was that the cast was mostly girls and one older woman. Nobody knew how to market to young females. Even Miramax couldn't figure it out, so they dumped it. But when it got to video, it found its intended audience. Thankfully, film executives no longer tell you there's no market for chick flicks.
CMB: Thirty years after you won an Oscar for MARJOE, you returned to documentary filmmaking with THOTH and won another Oscar. Are we going to have to wait that long before your next doc? What are you currently working on?
SK: I never set out to make documentaries. Those two films came about because I came across two amazing characters whose stories had to be told. I suppose I won't make another doc unless fate brings me another subject; I'm certainly not looking for one. At the moment I have two scripts with directors and stars attached, so I'm waiting to see if either or both get their financing. In the meantime I've published a paranormal thriller (Jane Was Here) and am working on a memoir of my encounters with ghosts.
For more information about Sarah Kernochan, visit her website.