Filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito used never before seen archives to give 'Love, Gilda' its touching and visceral power
Director of ‘Love, Gilda’ Lisa D’Apolito worked non-stop for four years to create an authentic and heartwarming documentary about one of the funniest women in Hollywood.
Gilda Radner, one of the most legendary performers of all time, died tragically at the young age of 42 years from ovarian cancer. Despite being one of the first females at the forefront of the comedy boom triggered around Saturday Night Live, shockingly, there haven’t been any real and thorough retellings of Radner’s story until now.
In a kismet turn of events, filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito was the one to tell Radner’s story in Documentary 'Love, Gilda,' and MEAWW spoke with her exclusively to learn how she was able to put this moving film together.
D’Apolito wasn’t always a documentarian, in fact, this was her first documentary. A former actress and producer, D’Apolito’s idea for the project came from her involvement in Gilda’s Club, a community for people suffering from cancer. Through her involvement in the organization, she thought that Radner’s untold story would make a fascinating subject for a documentary. D’Apolito pitched the idea to the CEO of Gilda’s Club, Lily Safani, who then connected her to Alan Zweibel, who worked with Radner on SNL and was a one of the closest people to her.
Zweibel wrote a book about Radner after her death in 1989 titled 'Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner – a Sort of Love Story', which was later adapted into a Broadway play. However, it wasn’t until halfway through the making of this documentary and interviewing people that were close to Radner, that Radner’s brother Michael finally trusted D’Apolito enough to give her access to a gold mine of an archive that contained hand written letters, journals and never before seen footage of Radner herself.
“Michael is the nicest person in the world. He’s really dedicated to Gilda’s legacy and her image and I think it took a while to trust me. I mean he wouldn’t have cared if there was a film about her or not, so I think it was just his trust in me that allowed me to have access to this instrumental part of the film.”
After working on a project about one person for several years, learning the ins and outs of their personality, their personal struggles and inner secrets and demons, D’Apolito began to feel like Radner was helping her create this story. Given that Radner is one of the most beloved comedy icons of the past decades, D’Apolito knew she had to handle this honor bestowed upon her with care and accuracy.
“I think all of us involved in the project almost felt like Gilda was starting to live with us. If you are going to have a spirit with you, I’m glad it’s Gilda. There is something very identifiable about Gilda that I think, at least everyone on our team, connected with for some reason. I think as we were going through her personal archives, there were experiences of Gilda’s we could all relate to. It wasn’t creepy but it was intense having her be so present. There was also an intensity to be truthful to the story that we were telling. When you have access to all this important and personal content, you just have to be very respectful of how you use it and make sure that it’s honest to the true story that you are telling.”
While Radner was, and still is, one of the most positive and inspirational women in history, her story is heartbreaking. D’Apolito wanted to make sure that she balanced the light and loving nature of Radner with the struggles she faced in her life, including the cancer that led to her death.
“It was a struggle to not make this a ‘sad’ film because you know how it's going to end. It ends when she gets cancer and then she dies. So that was a balance, because I didn’t want the audience to walk away sad. But it is sad, Gilda was so alive yet this horrible thing happens to her. So that was a real challenge.”
One of the most unique things about ‘Love, Gilda’ is that it truly feels as though it is Radner herself telling this story. At times, Radner is even narrating her own documentary through clips D’Apolito had found. This made the film much more touching and visceral for the audience, giving the feeling that Radner was actually present telling the audience about her life.
“I tried to get into Gilda as if she was a character and tried to tell the story from her emotional point of view. I think that all of these things I have done added up to make this film. And that was always my mission, which is very different than what editors and other people bring to the table. I always tried to drive in the emotion.”
After the fantastic experience D’Apolito had creating ‘Love, Gilda’, she wants to tell more stories about strong female icons. Through learning so much about Radner through this experience, she knows there are many more stories of strong women in Hollywood that need to be told.
“I really loved making the film, and I really love strong female characters. I have one film that I’m developing now and being in Hollywood, I’m just thinking somebody has storage with stuff of some older Hollywood memorabilia. There are so many amazing actresses in Hollywood history, if you go back to their work you could find some great stuff but it’s probably lost in time.”
‘Love, Gilda’ is a film that will leave you feeling empowered, but also saddened by the realities of life and what could have been.
You can see ‘Love, Gilda’ now in select theaters nationwide.