Liz Garbus is an award-winning documentary film director and producer and the co-founder of Moxie Firecracker Films, an independent documentary production company. Garbus has been nominated for multiple Academy Awards and her newest film, “There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane,” is airing on HBO’s Documentary Films Summer Series. The film examines one of the worst vehicle accidents in New York State History.
Garbus spoke with her longtime friend, Karen Duffy, the journalist, actor, model and bestselling author who goes by the moniker “Duff.”
Duff: What made you decide to make a film about Diane Schuler’s horrific accident on the Taconic Parkway two years ago?
Garbus: I think for every New Yorker, especially for mothers, the story of that car accident two years ago was impossible to forget about. It just seemed so incomprehensible that on a Sunday afternoon, a beautiful, bright clear day, a mother — who had no prior record, no prior DUIs, no involvement with drugs or alcohol, no history of depression or any of these things — gets behind the wheel on a journey that turns tragic. Ultimately driving two miles the wrong way on the Taconic and crashing into an oncoming vehicle which killed three men in that car, and her three nieces, her 2-year-old daughter and herself.
As we know, the toxicology reports then came back five days later and showed she had .19 blood alcohol level, which is twice the legal limit, and also very elevated THC levels, indicating that marijuana had been smoked within an hour.
It was puzzling in my mind and everyone’s mind because the anecdotal evidence about Diane Shuler was that she was this devoted mother and a very capable executive at Cablevision.
This film was particularly difficult. I’ve dealt with people who’ve committed crimes, I’ve dealt with murder before and I’ve gone and talked to the victims’ families and dealt with people in deep trauma and crisis. But in this particular case, there was no closure.
Duff: She would be considered a so-called “tiger mother”?
Garbus: Exactly. She was the breadwinner — she had two kids immaculately dressed every morning. She did this on her own because her husband worked nights. She would work during the day and have the kids on her own at night. She wasn’t a single parent, but she had a lot of responsibilities since her husband also worked nights.
So there was a lot on her plate, but she seemed to handle everything quite well. She did well in her job; they loved her there. She didn’t have a college education, yet she kept getting promoted and at the time of her death was earning around $100,000 a year. People who knew her at the schools said she was always the one organizing class gifts and volunteering for trips and the kids showed up early, their clothes ironed. Here was a person that did it all and seemed to do it extraordinarily.
Duff: As a filmmaker, you certainly don’t shy away from difficult material, but yet you said this film was very hard for you to make…
Garbus: Every film is difficult it its own way, but this film was particularly difficult. I’ve dealt with people who’ve committed crimes, I’ve dealt with murder before and I’ve gone and talked to the victims’ families and dealt with people in deep trauma and crisis. But in this particular case, there was no closure. Everyone had different stories, different visions of what happened that day. Because there was no trial for Diane Schuler and because there was no judicial process. It just hung out in peoples’ lives like this terrible terrible wound — an open, gaping wound in the lives of all the people affected that day. Walking around in their world required great empathy. These were people in crisis and when you walk into those worlds and turn your lens on them it’s a huge responsibility. And in a case that was so heated, it weighed very heavily on me, more so than other films because of the tremendous loss that these families had gone through.
Duff: The film explores this horrific crash, but there’s really not a smoking gun. We have the toxicology and the autopsy report, but in the footage from the gas station she seems collected, purposeful and focused. She doesn’t look like someone who had 10 shots of alcohol. As a civilized society we want to assign responsibility and blame, but here there are no answers and I think we want answers…
Garbus: I didn’t walk in saying, “we’re going to help New York state investigators find the smoking gun.” I didn’t have the illusion that we were going to go in there and find a hot lead that would then turn the thing on its face. Of course, we wanted to pursue every angle.
We went after medical records that could show us more about Diane’s history, or a psychological profile for a humanistic point of view. Understanding Diane better, talking to people who hadn’t yet come forward, was important. But I do think that at the end of the day we want a smoking gun. We want it to be black and white, and it’s nearly impossible, especially for those close to the tragedy, to live without that.
So she becomes a saint in the memory of those who were close to her. And there are various shades of denial and also general, understandable shock and this lack of comprehension.
Duff: I thought the experts that you spoke with had such compassion in speaking to the Schuler family. I thought that was one of the most moving scenes, the clarity and the humanity.
Garbus: It wasn’t just the Schulers that needed some of these experts to put this into context . We needed experts and our audience needed it. We needed one of the most respected medical examiners to look through this case and discuss it with us. Could there have been anything left out? We need a forensic psychiatrist to talk about Diane’s childhood and piece together the anecdotal evidence to come up with a better understanding of who she was.
I think one of the experts talked about how so many small things lead up to this terrible hole. And we want it to be one bad thing like she was committing suicide or she found out some horrible thing, but what if it were just a dozen small things that were not terrible, but add up to a terrible whole? And I think that’s what we can’t understand.
No, she was not a saint, but no she was not an evil person. And I think there is a tendency to put people in these black and white squares but sometimes they don’t fit. And then when they don’t fit, or when the pattern of the crime doesn’t fit, there’s denial and disbelief.
Duff: For everyone who heard this story when it happened, Diane was demonized. But you say in the film, “a person is more than just their worst action…”
Garbus: I am not equal to my worst action. No, I haven’t had drinks with five kids in the car, but I’ve done bad things. I am a complicated person that makes mistakes but also does great things, like we all are. Diane was like that as well. But the media, the 24-hour news cycle, the desire to say “drunk mom,” “suicide mission”… It just reduces everything and makes it impossible for the people who are left there and I think that’s a very negative part of our society.
“There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane” premieres on HBO at Monday 9 p.m.
The trailer for “There’s something wrong with Aunt Diane”,” which is available on HBO through September 11, 2011.
Duff: Was it difficult to get the Schulers and the other victims’ families to talk to you?
Garbus: For the Schulers, having a platform like the one we were able to give with HBO was appealing. I think also, we were going to do an investigation — we were going to help get the medical records and push as far as we could, to find whatever other information we could to help us understand what happened that day.
So once I think they understood the work we do, there was a desire and a comfort level. People weren’t open on day one, but as time goes on, there’s trust that forms and again I think that’s why it was so difficult. You want to honor their trust, but you also have to be in the honesty business and say, “look this might not turn up the answer that you’re looking for.” Everyone has this fantasy that someone will have the answer that they’re looking for on a platter.
Duffy: What did you learn in making the film?
Garbus:I learned about the ideals around motherhood, the way that she was put on a pedestal as the perfect mom, what the ingredients of being a perfect mom looked like. The idea is probably too much for anybody to be, yet we want people to be it. This idea about how the desire for answers and completion eludes us and how difficult that is to deal with.
One of the first things I say in the film is, “we may not find out anything new…is that okay?” Everybody was along for the journey knowing that might be the case. But hopefully by the end of it, there was an understanding that multiple answers and shades of gray can suffice, but some things are never knowable.