The feature documentary “Mansfield 66/67” focuses on the final 2 years of Jayne Mansfield’s life and the rumours surrounding her untimely death.
2017 marked the 50th anniversary of Jayne Mansfield’s fatal and legendary car crash, yet we still are left to wonder: was her life spinning out of control in the last two years of her life, or…did the devil make her do it?
Larra Anderson, LCC’s Dean of Screen School co-produced the film with long-time filmmaking partners P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes (who co-directed the film), as well shooting all of the UK based footage.
Classic documentary interviews and archival materials are blended with experimental dance numbers, performance art and animation, elevating a tabloid tale of a fallen Hollywood idol into a celebration of the mythical proportions of a true original.
Here we catch up with Larra about the unconventional documentary…
Hi Larra! Can you tell us more about your role in this film and what a Producer/Cinematographer does?
This was the first time I was also involved as a producer, whereas in the past I have always worked alongside Todd and David as a cinematographer alone. As a producer, one is responsible for the ultimate delivery and shape of the film and in this case the directors and I were co-producers, so given that the three of us were producing and then taking on other collaborative roles the dynamics played out differently than they would have in most films.
I had brought the funding together in the UK and had brought Todd and David over to the Northern Film School at Leeds Beckett University, where I was then the Director of the Film School, as Visiting Artists to work with me and other colleagues on the film, so I was the responsible party for getting the film accomplished.
Once in the UK, Todd and David and I collaborated both pragmatically and creatively in planning all of the film, in the shooting of the film itself as a directors/cinematographer team and then extensively throughout the editing process as they were acting as editors as I gave weekly feedback in order to help shape the film going forward.
How did the opportunity come about?
The directors and I have been collaborators for about 20 years and have made numerous films together. Todd and David had written a dramatic narrative project around Jayne and had hoped to get funding for that project. When that didn’t materialise they realised that they had done a terrific amount of research already in the construction of that script and they contacted me to see if I wanted to be involved in shooting a documentary which explored the same story.
The film is made up of animation, talking head interviews and archive footage – why was this approach taken?
The film has many incidents which are rumoured to have had substantial effects on Jayne’s life, but which have very slim documentation to substantiate them, so we needed to come up with multiple ways of both exploring but also illustrating those events to the audience.
This means that we could have done standard dramatic recreations, but we chose to explore alternative means and in many cases went so far as to use animation, a Greek chorus of performance artists and modern dance as a means of highlighting the relationships between people or events.
The tagline for the film is ‘a true story based on rumour and hearsay’, can you explain the unique approach to this documentary?
When Todd and David were editing, in one of the cuts they had put in the title card “based on a true story”. I felt that this didn’t fully take into account the broader perspective of the nature of truth in the documentation and the questionable nature of the available archive upon which the documentary could be based.
I had been having conversations with my friend, the historian Dr. Barbara Hahn (who ended up in the film), about what makes historical fact and in our discussions it had become clear to me that the public record we were using was an unreliable source from the point of view of the construction of actual history. It had to be, based on the way that the documentation around Jayne’s life had come to be which was through publicity and tabloid journalism almost exclusively. Therefore I suggested we change the tagline to “based on rumour and hearsay”.
I think it becomes critical to the entire make-up of the film after that statement – that the viewer needs to remain aware that part of the conceit of the film is that it is not unpacking the swirling rumours around Jayne Mansfield, but actually exploring the history of them in and of themselves and are therefore coloured by the very nature of being based upon those “facts”. The statement is actually at its heart in many ways a statement about the myth of the construction of “truth” in documentary itself – it is just that we acknowledge it upfront.
What was a typical working day like on the film?
Film has so many different stages that it depends on whether you are talking about pre-production, production or post-production. It is a long process, the bulk of which took 8 months to complete. This could mean in pre-production watching films together; researching the subject; discussing influences, themes and content; designing sets; rehearsing with dancers and performers; gathering cast and crew etc to production where we were collaborating in the construction of interviews, performance and dance on film or post-production where the directors were also functioning as the editors and therefore very much needed me to maintain an “outside eye” to be able to consistently give them the creative feedback needed to best shape the film.
As a Producer and Director of Photography, what kind of impact do you hope to have on films and what do you want the audience to take away?
As a producer I was very much interested in the issue around the construction of truth from a questionable archive and I was looking to explore the idea of the “exploded documentary” as a result. Like an exploded diagramme, the idea behind the exploded documentary is that rather than looking at the literal representation of a ‘thing’, that by looking at the relationships and interactions in the object that you can get a more accurate assessment of the workings of a ‘thing’. This means that you no longer are attached to the literal depiction of scenes, but can use interpretations such as animation, performance or even dance to explore thematics which could not be explored if one pursued merely a literal treatment.
“Ultimately, I think the story of Jayne Mansfield is one of a free-thinking woman who broke a lot of the taboos of her time in her search to be herself, support her family and pursue her chosen calling. And I think that is what is interesting about Jayne, is to see her not as a victim of the 50’s American vision of the “blonde bombshell” but as the beginning of the phenomenon of the “reality star” as someone who is working to control their own image and surviving in the public eye because of that.” — Larra Anderson, LCC Dean of Screen
What advice would you give to aspiring UAL student filmmakers who are inspired by what you have achieved?
Remember that the people you are making films with now may be the same people you are making films with 20 years from now – so treat them with respect and kindness while exploring your creative processes together.
Mansfield 66/67 screened at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Dalston’s Rio Cinema, Manchester’s Home Cinema and Leed’s Hyde Park Picture House from the 11th – 20th of May, 2018.