Other than the Kennedys, perhaps no high-profile American family has endured more tragedy than the Hemingways. Most of the public is familiar with the suicide of Ernest and the overdose death of Margaux, but the sad story runs far deeper than that, with several other suicides, and mental illness issues running through many branches of the family. So Mariel Hemingway could be excused for feeling a bit hesitant about participating in a documentary about her family. But when a two-time Oscar winning master like Barbara Kopple knocks on the door, you really have to answer.
“I had one of my closest girlfriends,” remembers Hemingway, “who was an executive at OWN at the time, and she had said for several years that I should do a documentary about my family, and I always said, ‘You are out of your mind. My family is all crazy. No one wants to see that.’ And she said, ‘No no no, that’s the point.’ So I sort of ignored her, and she came back later and said, ‘Look, I was serious. I think this is an important piece that needs to be done. And I have Barbara Kopple interested in making it.’ So that definitely piqued my interest, and I said that I would certainly be interested in meeting with her. So Barbara and I met in New York City, and we sat for several hours talking, and we just really got along. And I just felt like, if I am going to do this, number one, it’s going to be a piece of art, because she’s a stunning filmmaker. And, it’s going to be handled with the kind of care I felt it deserved. Because it was my family, I didn’t want it to be a train wreck of a reality show. I wanted it to be handled well.”
Kopple was equally excited to meet Hemingway, and to get started on the project. “I had, all my life, read about the Hemingways,” she says.” You read articles and everything else. But you don’t really get deep down into the soul of what that family is. And I thought, aha, this is something where maybe I can dig deep. So I met with Mariel. We went to the Standard for breakfast, and her two daughters were there, and we just talked like two old girlfriends, and she said that, in fact, that was exactly what she wanted to do. She was going to do this and neither of us would leave a stone unturned. Anything goes. She wanted to get everything out. I went home, and I was so happy that I was jumping up and down. It was a dream.”
Hemingway was happy as well, not only because of Kopple’s history and their obvious chemistry, but because of her take on the story. “She’s wonderful. You feel safe with someone who can take all of that information and take out the pieces that are going to tell a beautiful story. And that beautiful story is really more than just about depression and suicide and all the so-called tragedy of my family. She really saw the joy, and the hope, and the vision for a future. Which is my future, and my daughters’ future. That’s really powerful. And positive.”
Still, the trepidation persisted a bit. “I have to tell you,” she confesses, “that when I really decided to make the film, I had to sit with my thoughts for a bit and ask myself if I really wanted to open this can of worms. Did I really want to tell everything? Because to tell this story properly, you really have to tell the truth, and the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God. And that was my feeling, that I had to make a pact with myself that I would tell the truth as I saw it, my perception of it. But I also have tremendous love for my family. I respect them. I think that everyone in it is just a lovely human being. But all families have challenges. We all have dark stories. So this was about dealing with the dark side of where you come from. And being able to tell those stories, I think, enriches the lightness. It enriches the beauty of what’s good. But until you can tell the dark stories, you can’t really heal. I really wanted to make this film because I think everyone has these stories. And we’re finding that as people are seeing this, people are coming up to me with tears in their eyes, saying ‘Oh my God, I have the same stories.’ And all I can say to them is, ‘Of course you do. We all share in this.’ So the point is, let’s have a dialogue about this.”
Starting that dialogue was equally important to Kopple. “It was amazing to me that nobody talked about Ernest,” she says. “You knew about all the manly, masculine things he did, but you didn’t know about all the demons. Jack, in his interview with Margot, didn’t talk at all about his father. Mariel decided to crack that. She said, ‘For myself, and for my daughters, we are going to talk about what has happened in our family. You are going to learn your family history.’ And I think she did it not only for her own daughters, but for all of us. Every one of us has mental illness in our family, or knows someone with it. And if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t heal. We need to talk about it, and have each other’s backs. We need to have more love towards each other. Or these things are going to remain in the darkness.”
And it’s for those daughters, in the final reckoning, that Hemingway really made the documentary. “It’s like gratitude to them for hanging in there with me as a mother. I probably didn’t make all the right choices, in terms of not speaking to them completely openly about the family history. I was afraid of it. I thought I was saving them from themselves, or from my own fears. Whereas what I learned in the journey of making this film, and the gift to them, is to say, ‘Look. Here it is. Here’s our story. Now that we’ve spoken about it, you can make the choice of whether you want to be a part of all that, or whether you want to live your life. You don’t have to carry this as some legacy or fear that you have. That’s what I did. You live your life—not that you won’t have problems, not that you won’t be happy every single day of your life. But it’ll be your life, not dragging around the baggage of somebody else’s history.’”
Being a part of that process for someone she had always admired, and had grown to love was special to Kopple. “When you do a film and live with someone,” she says, “you love them. You love who they are. You want them to succeed. You want to create an environment where they can bloom. You want to ask questions where they can dig deep and really think about things. That’s what makes it magical for me. If I get some things that say something, it gives me so much adrenaline, so much excitement that that has happened.”