This week we speak to director/producer Nimisha Mukerji and producer Kaitlyn Regehr about 2016 Hot Docs official selection Tempest Storm (Shot Glass Productions) and the film’s namesake: America’s oldest living sex icon. In honour of the Hot Docs 2016 program announcement and the world premiere of Tempest Storm at the Festival, we spoke to Nimisha and Kaitlyn about what it’s like making a film about a seemingly public, yet deeply private persona, and how Tempest’s unapologetic life inspired not only what is seen on screen, but the attitude of filmmakers who set out to make an uncompromising film.
Tempest Storm received Shaw Media-Hot Docs funding for development and completion, and pitched at the Hot Docs Forum in 2014. Tempest Storm also won the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize, a $10,000 cash prize awarded to the best Canadian pitch at the Forum.
Hot Docs: What is Tempest Storm about to you?
Nimisha Mukerji: To me, the film is about courage. Tempest was a professional, working woman in an industry that a lot of women look down on, but she created an entire life for herself with no help from anyone—she’s a self-made woman. This film has never been interested in judging Tempest for her choices. It is about trying to understand her and her journey: where she came from and where she ultimately is today. On a personal level, I’ve completely been inspired by her, and the way she carried herself during the entire experience of making this documentary.
Kaitlyn Regehr: Though we’re talking about someone who is 88 years old, I feel that a lot of the themes in the film are very of the moment. We have a baby boomer population talking about age and sexuality for the first time, and especially what that means in terms of women’s sexual identities. Tempest was working because she needed to work when a lot of women didn’t. Issues of sexual assault also come out on the film, and she speaks about them openly. There are a lot of themes that are very relevant to the public consciousness today.
HD: You are focusing your lens on someone who, for so long, has constructed this very careful image and myth around themselves, and for a fan base that is 50 years old. What is it like being in the personal, domestic space of someone like that? Is that a challenging personality to contend with?
KR: She does have a very carefully constructed image, but she’s also from a period pre-social media, before the media became so prevalent in public figures lives. She was Marilyn Monroe’s neighbour and there was never any paparazzi out front. So she was from a period where you were allowed both a private self and a public self, and those can be very different. When we began the interview process, I got the sense that talking about herself and have it not only be socially acceptable, but expected, was a big learning curve.
NM: She is very good with the press and the press has always loved her, but it’s been within a brand that she’s created for herself. It’s something that we admired about her. But in a documentary, trying to explain that she wouldn’t be lit for each shot, because this is more about getting to who you really are as a person, was a new concept. Mistakenly we thought, “She’s coming from the entertainment world. She’s going to want to spill everything.” But she really is a private person. She doesn’t talk about her personal life and her family. This was not a fast film to make. It was a process for all of us, together, based on trust.
HD: You focus quite a bit on a specific subset of her fan base: young burlesque dancers, models, women in the sex industry who admire not just her career, but a career in which she was able to maintain independence throughout. Why was it important to represent this specific kind of admiration in the film?
NM: For us, what was always fascinating was that Tempest is still relevant today. She’s not like Bettie Page, who bowed out and decided she wanted to be remembered as she was when she was young. Tempest will tell you today: she thinks she looks as good today as she did 50 years ago. She is 100 per cent proud of her age and she’s not going to hide away for any reason. In the film, we tried to show that her appeal crosses generations and genders. Men like Jack White and Garry Marshall admire her, not just for being a beautiful woman, but a powerful one. She represents a kind of power and confidence that women are attracted to. Before Beyoncé there was Tempest. She stood by her belief system even when it cost her professionally, like with her interracial marriage to Herb Jefferies. She believed in certain things and stood by them even when they cost her dearly.
KR: Tempest is a symbol for some feminists: whether they identify themselves as post-feminist, sex-positive feminists, or are from a community with feminist undertones. Tempest, and women like her who worked in this period, had a lot of run-ins with feminism that at the time was often very confrontational towards women in exotic entertainment. There are accounts of feminist student groups who would protest outside of theatres and be very hostile towards dancers. So, understandably, she has a very different relationship with that word. But by way of the neo-burlesque, neo-feminism movement she has been re-interpreted as a feminist icon, even if she might not herself identify as such.
NM: She might not say that she’s a feminist but when you look at her life, and the way she conducted herself, it was more about putting things into action then about labels. I don’t think she’s really interested in labels.
HD: Was it intimidating to make a film about someone who had already had a public life?
NM: It wasn’t intimidating because it felt like a collective effort. We were working as a team with Tempest; we made the film with Tempest. But I think what was intimidating was trying to figure out how to fund the film and find a platform for someone who we believed was this huge public figure, and then realizing that the media is still slow to pick-up stories about strong, complicated women.
KR: And aging women.
NM: You see this issue in the narrative world and we completely encountered it in the documentary world as well. I think there has been a bit more traction within music documentaries of trying to look back on women’s careers, but Tempest was an American sex icon and there were a lot of quick judgements about her and her profession, and what the film was going to be about. Sometimes when pitching it there was this pressure to just focus on the relationships she had with famous men. So resisting the urge to make a film that would have been easier, but not better, was intimidating at one point. We were really clear about the film we wanted to make with Tempest, but would we be able to make this film and get an audience for this film by sticking to our guns? That’s why premiering at Hot Docs is really exciting for us: this is a big platform to launch the film.
HD: It seems so heartbreaking to represent what a very full and active life looks like, because it spans across a huge amount of time, and you’re looking at how relationships evolve, where they start and what they turn into. Was it difficult to represent 50+ year relationships in a way that felt comprehensive?
NM: We knew very early on that the relationships in her life are what we wanted to focus on. We didn’t want it to be a straight biography. We worked really hard to counter the tropes of those films, and because Tempest is alive we wanted the film to feel like it had a cinema verité element to it, and to have who she is today be clearly reflected in the film.
HD: You have really great archive in the film: really beautiful photos and interviews, burlesque footage. It looks like Tempest kept everything. Did she share all that with you?
KR: She didn’t keep a lot; although she kept a lot of scrapbooks of photos, which were wonderful, and such a pleasure to go through with her, because as a researcher you’re never going through those materials with the subjects. So for the images, that was amazing. The footage was a real challenge. As it is with any old footage from that period, but especially footage that was deemed as “smut” at the time, and deemed not worth keeping. We weren’t looking for footage of astronauts on the moon; we would be looking for a particular burlesque show at a rundown theatre in Boston. Finding archivists who valued that material in a different way and could find that material for us was a unique part of the process, and a huge team effort. When we actually found what we believed were the visual materials to tell the story from the beginning, it was awesome. We also weren’t sure if there was going to be any footage of her as a child, coming out of the depression, but the materials started to slowly emerge over time and it was really exciting. We hope people appreciate how hard it was to find the clips and photos!
HD: What is it like to pitch, at an event like the Hot Docs Forum, a supposedly singular, personal story? What really matters when you are trying to get a single protagonist across in a pitch?
NM: I think, when we were pitching at the Forum, it was about trying to present what we knew the story was, in the best way possible, so that the right broadcasters would fall in love with it. We were really fortunate that’s what happened. We also want to note that we’ve had incredible women support this project: Elizabeth Radshaw and Dorota Lech at Hot Docs have been such a huge support to us. They believed in the film from the very beginning. The broadcasters we attracted at the Forum were female broadcasters: Gudrun Hanke-El Ghormi at SWR and Maureen Levitt at Super Channel…so we definitely felt the love from the women at the Forum.
HD: Who else came on board?
KR: YesDocu Israel and Arte. We got our funding from the Forum. We were able to walk away with enough money to make the film. We had done a Kickstarter as well, prior to the Forum, which raised $45,000.
HD: Can you both share with me your greatest takeaways from this experience? Something that you think will stick with you for future projects.
KR: The first thing that comes to mind for me, as an academic, is that it’s such a joy to be able to tell someone’s story through his or her lens. It is such a privilege to work with a living person on their story. I realize, more and more, how important it is to have that voice present. I’m very grateful to Tempest for that.
NM: The greatest lesson I learned was from Tempest, which was to be unapologetic. Don’t apologize for who you are. Get in there, fight your way through, be proud of your achievements. She is someone who is probably one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. To have her in our lives as a woman has been such a positive experience. She was so ahead of the game. Don’t underestimate what you’re worth, be strong in the vision of what you want. I think we really took that to heart with this film and really stuck to our guns. So at this point, we’re really unapologetic about the film. We really love the film, and we’re really excited to premiere it at Hot Docs and share it with audiences.
Learn more about Tempest Storm here:
Photo credits: Jessica Earnshaw
Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo.March 25, 2016