HBO has been a home for some of the most daring and provocative original movies and miniseries for decades and their annual sweep of the Emmy Awards is proof enough of their supremacy in this category. Add Cinema Verite, which premieres on Saturday, April 23, to the list.
While the movie is a retelling of the making of An American Family, a 10 part series about the Loud family of Santa Barbara that aired on PBS in the early 70’s, it’s much more than simply a docudrama in the hands of the husband and wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor) who direct from a script by David Seltzer (The Omen) franchise). Instead it’s a cautionary tale in some ways of the darker side of “reality” television that changed the television landscape forever.
Cinema Verite stars Diane Lane and Tim Robbins as Pat and Bill Loud, the couple who seem to have it all, a home in sunny California, a swimming pool and five children. But that’s definitely not the case and once James Gandolfini, as the producer Craig Gilbert, convinces them to allow cameras into their daily life they become anything but the typical America family. Instead they reveal the darker side of marriage and family life and in their eldest son, Lance, one of the first openly gay males ever to be featured on television. This may not seem that scandalous today but back then the television version was sugar-coated in shows like Leave it to Beaver, Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family and Louds were vilified by the press and the public who were shocked by their behavior, especially Pat asking Bill for a divorce in one episode.
What makes Cinema Verite so compelling is the filmmakers use of clips of the Louds from the documentary as bookends to some of the scenes that are recreated by the cast. Since many viewers under 50 have not seen American Family this technique adds weight as we realize early on that the Louds are real…that even though we are watching essentially a film about the making of another film…and what we see really happened.
While Gilbert (Gandolfini) has been viewed as manipulating Pat (Lane) to allow Susan and Alan Raymond (Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) to film these very private scenes, Springer Berman and Pulcini, as documentary filmmakers themselves, could grasp this twist on reality.
“We could relate to Craig and understood his perspective as we’ve been in similar positions. You’re always trying to walk a line between best representing your subjects as well as best serving the movie, ” said Pulcini. “We could also relate to the Raymonds who were a young couple, idealistic and thrilled to be working on this project.”
To this day The Raymonds and Gilbert do not speak and have major differences of what really happened while filming An American Family.
“Gilbert set out to make a film with artistic merit, a window into a real American family but he definitely may have influenced Pat to do things she might not have on her own,” said Springer Berman. “Pat and Craig had a complicated relationship. She went to Standford and he to Harvard and he provided intellectual stimulation while she’s a housewife raising five children and trapped at home a lot with a philandering husband.”
Whatever your personal opinion about the making of American Family, don’t miss Cinema Verite and the chance to see, for better or worse, how reality television came to be and the incredible power of the camera.
While the Loud family didn’t participate in the making of the HBO film, Pat and Bill did reunite as a couple after their son, Lance, died.
“In a way the documentary ripped the Loud family apart but in the end they all came back together,” said Springer Berman.