An American Family: Anniversary Edition – A Conversation with Alan and Susan Raymond

July 7th, 2011

Alan and Susan Raymond filming 'An American Family' (Photo credit: WNET)

Inside Thirteen recently had the opportunity to speak with Alan and Susan Raymond, filmmakers of the original series, An American Family, public television’s groundbreaking reality series from 1973 documenting the lives of the Loud family in Santa Barbara, California.

Nearly 40 years later, the Raymonds have produced and edited down the show’s twelve hours of footage into a two-hour program, An American Family: Anniversary Edition, capturing the most compelling moments from the series and introducing a new generation of viewers to the show.

Here, the Raymonds discuss memories from the show, filmmaking, and the experience of consulting on HBO’s recent film, Cinema Verite.

An American Family: Anniversary Edition airs Friday, July 8 at 9:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Inside Thirteen: How did you get involved with An American Family and what first interested you in working on the show?

Susan Raymond: We had a working relationship with WNET and the producer, Craig Gilbert. We had previously worked with him on the The Triumph of Christie Brown, which was nominated for an Emmy, and this was his next program.  He wanted us to start immediately filming the family, as soon as he found them.  We jumped at the chance, and knew it was going to be exciting. Alan and I were the ones who decided to use the cinema vérité filming approach.

IT: Why was public television a good venue for the show? Was PBS at all hesitant to take on such a risky show?

Alan Raymond: I think we should understand first the early days of public television.  The initial incarnation I think at the time was that WNET was National Educational Television.  As I understand it, they were looking to do something in the way of some signature programming that would be high profile.  As a result of Craig Gilbert proposing this series, they decided this might be the kind of program that would call attention to itself.  I don’t think anybody understood how momentous the show ultimately would become. The two executives at the time who were involved in green lighting it were Jim Day and Curt Davis – Jim Day was head of the station, and Curt Davis was head of Cultural Programming.  So, it was kind of a risky venture.  I think the biggest risk obviously was to see if anything would develop in the way of a storyline, which I guess is always the reservation about any kind of cinema vérité project.

SR: It was extremely risky for the executives to sign over twelve hours of airtime to one program – it’s pretty unheard of, actually.  I don’t think you could go and find another that followed it, either, with twelve hours in a series.

IT: Did any ethical issues arise during the making of the show, particularly with regard to the Loud family’s privacy?

SR: Alan and I had our own code of ethics on what boundaries we were going to cross, and I thought that we kept a balance in letting the family have some private time every day.  In Santa Barbara, there were six people, so we would follow one or the other for whatever activity – work, or if the boys were practicing, the girls were dancing – whatever, and that would give the other person a breather and privacy to do what they were doing.

AR: I think there were barriers of intimacy in this series that were crossed for the first time on television, and that was one of the things that was so unsettling for many people – how could the Louds allow filmmakers to record this intimate material? As the storyline began to develop during the first months of filming, there was tension in the marriage that ultimately led to a divorce between Bill and Pat Loud.  We did have many reservations about how much to force the storyline or to get Bill and Pat to appear in scenes in which these issues were discussed.  But, that’s also part of the strength of the series, so it’s kind of a Catch-22.  There are and always remain moral and ethical issues with filmmakers who use real people as subjects of their documentaries.  On the other hand, if you don’t break certain barriers of intimacy, I think especially in a family documentary, you’re not really telling the whole truth.

IT: Do you have a favorite episode or scene from the show?

Alan and Susan Raymond filming Michele and Patricia Loud (Photo credit: WNET)

SR: Show two with Lance in New York was the most fun.  It was the first day of shooting, we didn’t know what to expect, we didn’t know what the family was like, and they didn’t know what we were like.  We just walked into the hotel room that Lance was staying in and started shooting.  We started shooting Pat as she got out of the cab.  It was exciting, and it literally unfolded.  Lance and his friends kept making plans for what to do with Pat during the visit, and each thing they came up with was even more fun than the last, so it was a great introduction to the family, to the filming, and to Lance.

AR: It’s one of the few episodes to have a self-contained story within the one hour.  It’s also a kind of classic theme, the older child separating from the family and the parent coming to visit them in the big city. The fact that Lance was openly gay I think gave it a kind of resonance that, certainly for 1973 viewers, was quite unsettling and maybe to many viewers, surprising. Now in hindsight, I guess not so much – you have to remember the time. I’d have to agree though; episode two is my favorite.

IT: What was the experience like of consulting for HBO’s Cinema Verite?

AR: That was a dramatization of the events in the making of the series in Santa Barbara.  So, you have to deal with dramatic license – some scenes were condensed, some scenes were totally made up that never actually existed.  In general, we worked with everyone on the production – we started with the scriptwriter over a period, and then we worked with the various actors and we were on the set in Los Angeles. We spent a lot of time with Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins, who played us in the movie, mainly to give them a sense of how to make the filming scenes look realistic.

Overall, we felt the storyline was accurate.  We know for a fact some of the material in the film was created for the drama, and some scenes we had some problems with, but overall I think we tried to make the film as realistic as possible.

SR: It was actually a learning curve, and when we started we told them everything that happened, and then it became apparent that they were going to pick and choose which parts they found interesting.  Whereas, of course, we found it all interesting!  At one point, we just realized, it’s their movie, and it was a fictionalized account, and they were going to make it.  At that point you just have to let go and realize that it was going to be a version of what happened.  And it was pretty good!  We just accepted it for what it was, which is basically, an incredible life experience for someone to decide that you, a documentary filmmaker, should have your life reenacted.  The thing that I’ll always be thankful for is that the HBO people allowed us to be included in the process, so as filmmakers it was an up close and personal way to see how they make a movie – to see how many times it changes when every hand comes into it.

IT: How do you feel the role of documentary filmmakers has changed since An American Family?

AR: One of the issues that has emerged from the legacy of the American Family series is the shadow of reality television and how in some ways there was something of a template created in the original PBS series for using real people to tell stories in a weekly format that would captivate an audience like a dramatic movie would.  I think that is where you get on to the real slippery slope. We don’t consider those [modern reality series] a genuine form of documentary – they’re sort of a hybrid form of entertainment documentaries.  Obviously, those don’t (I don’t think) follow the same ethical rules that professional journalists who produce serious documentaries, like HBO documentary films or FRONTLINE or something like that, have to basically adhere to.  So, you have a bifurcated group of filmmakers, half of whom are chasing a kind of entertainment goal where they are using real people but maybe giving them lots of suggestions or scripted lines to say or planting situations very artificially, whereas the real documentary filmmaker has to work within the confines of traditional broadcast journalism.

The problem is when one or the other, primarily the documentary filmmaker, begins to appropriate some of the techniques of reality television.  It’s become a more complicated universe to produce long form documentaries for sure, and it’s something that will always be evolving.

SR: It is an uncomfortable thing to watch because we like to adhere to the idea that nonfiction is the strongest story – truth is stronger than fiction.  It’s the best part of the story, so when people take all these shortcuts because they haven’t got time to wait for the character’s story to unfold – it’s very irksome and it confuses an audience to the point where I think they accept everything as true; it’s sort of like playing tricks and games on your audience.  I think that’s why An American Family stands after 40 years as the legendary television iconic movie that it is, because the Louds lived their lives on camera, and we lived their lives as they unfolded.

IT: What was the process like of making An American Family: Anniversary Edition?

AR: For An American Family: Anniversary Edition, we faced the challenge of condensing the twelve hours down to a two-hour feature-length version. We tried not to change the general pacing of the show; the individual scenes are still pretty much in tact. I hope that this two-hour version will be a user-friendly lens into the original series.

IT: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in the making of An American Family?

AR: In retrospect, seven months was too brutal for everyone, the Louds and for us.  The first ten hours of the twelve came from the first six weeks of filming.  So the additional five months we stayed all the way until New Years really didn’t yield much in the way of great material.  For them at least, it was something that must have at some point been kind of painful, after the family broke up and Bill moved out of the house.  There was a deflated feeling within the house, which was kind of depressing.  I think at that point we should’ve just packed up our equipment and left and gone back to New York.  Instead, Craig Gilbert, the producer, wanted us to stay for many more months.  I question the financial and logistical rationale behind that because it didn’t actually result in any new twists in the story.

I think in general we were happy with our work, we’ve always been very proud of the fact that we really were there in the middle of all these very dramatic scenes and assimilated ourselves into the family lifestyle. That’s a hard thing to do for any cinema vérité filmmaker, and I think part of the success of the series hinges on that – the relationships we formed with them.  These relationships continued for many, many years – we produced two more follow up documentaries: in 1983, An American Family: Revisited, which let the family talk about the experience.  Then, in 2003, we produced Lance Loud: A Death in An American Family — when Lance became ill, he contacted us and asked if we would make one more film.

SR: That phone call and request was far more emotional than having HBO do a cinema vérité movie on us.