Doug Block’s daughter Lucy is no stranger to cameras. With a documentary maker for a dad that’s not surprising.
“She always loved being on camera, and we always enjoyed shooting each other over the years,” he told me from New York the other day. Block (left with Lucy as a girl) says video was just part of their lives. “I really liked interviewing Lucy periodically, and she really liked to interview me.”
While he wondered over the years about whether these chats could turn into something more, he always dismissed the idea because he didn’t think anyone else would want to watch it.
However the idea never totally disappeared. He says while he has seen many movies about parenting, in fact he’d even made one himself called “51 Birch Street,” he’d never seen a film about the subject actually from a parent’s perspective.
Then when he woke up one morning and realized it was just about a year till Lucy was likely to head to college. The idea of doing a sweet little film about his child evaporated as he realized how much he worried about what was going to happen. Another movie idea began to form.
“It was probably a bit more bittersweet film about bringing a child up, only to let her go” he said. He decided that could work and he swung into action.
The movie tells the tale of that last year, mixing the narrative with the material Block has gathered throughout Lucy’s girlhood. In some ways she has changed a great deal, in other ways the same personality shines through.
Lucy then and now Images courtesy Shadow Distribution
That final year wasn’t a simple shoot. As Block’s anxiety mounted Lucy began to chafe. With the time of her departure drawing near, she suddenly announced the filming was weighing down on her, and tore into her father as his camera rolled.
“Suddenly I was confronted with that nightmare of the documentary film maker which is what do you do?” Block said. “I am a parent first and a film maker second. Yet we are right at the end of the shooting and the film has become my baby, and you are protective of the film as well. It just caught me totally off guard.”
It’s tough to watch, but Block says she never explicitly told him to turn off the camera. He went with his gut and kept rolling, knowing he was on dangerous ground..
“You are trying to live your life and at the same time film it and be objective: stand at a distance and see yourself as a character in a film and yet really the top priority is that you are living your own life, and you are really there for your own family. I don’t recommend it,” he said.
It’s then the film takes on a subplot of whether it will ever get finished.
There are other tough moments in the film, including some scenes where his wife Marjorie deals with a depressive episode which confines her to bed.
Block admits many people might feel the scenes of Lucy’s meltdown and Marjorie’s illness are to use his words “wildly inappropriate.” However he says neither of them stopped him from including them in the film. In fact he says Marjorie is proud that what happened to her is shown.
This isn’t the first film Doug Block has using his own family as subject matter. “51 Birch Street” began as an exploration of his parent’s long marriage. However it developed a twist after his father married his former secretary very shortly after he mother died.
Block says he doesn’t film his family continuously, just five minutes here and there, before he quickly puts the camera away. However he now has a huge archive of material on which to draw as he considers his personal history.
He believes the film making has actually brought his family closer together. He says Marjorie told him he never listens more carefully to her than when he interviews her.
“And so we have these very honest conversations on camera. It gave me the chance to watch and observe my family,” he said.
In “The Kids Grow Up” the conversations between husband and wife are brief but intense, as they navigate what turns out to be a tumultuous year.
Block says Lucy was shown the first cuts, including the toughest scenes, and she was given the chance to nix the film if she didn’t want it to go forward. She gave the project her blessing.
The film premiered last year, and Block says he’s now taken it to about 20 different cities. It will air on HBO in June around Father’s Day. He says people really like it when they see it in a theater.
“Now and again we run into someone, usually when they have seen it on DVD, not in a theater, who gets a little taken aback at my seemingly excessive recording of my daughter and probably thinks I am the worlds worst parent and should be locked away forever,” he laughed.
The critics have loved it too. Block says the reviews are the best he’s received in his career.
He’s now working on the DVD of “The Kids Grow Up,” which includes the only interview he’s done with Lucy since the day they dropped her off at college. It answers the question he is always asked at screenings about what she thinks of the film. Block admits Lucy’s reactions are mixed.
“On the one hand she thinks its a really good film, and she’s happy that audiences really respond to it,” he said. “On the other hand there’s one or two scenes that embarrass her.”
While he’s now making a film about long term marriages, drawing on wedding videos he’s shot over the years to supplement his other work, Block also says the Lucy project is truly over.
At the end of “The Kids Grow Up” he talks about how he looks forward to having wonderful conversations with his daughter without the camera rolling.
“And,” he said, “That’s exactly what we’ve had for the last three and a half years.”