NEW YORK — They say opposites attract. Lance Oppenheim was still just an undergraduate at Harvard University when he began working on “Some Kind of Heaven,” a film about senior citizens living in The Villages, Florida — the world’s largest retirement community. Mixing comedy, drama, tragedy, and beauty, this very “cinematic” documentary is a treasure, and also, no doubt, the harbinger of a great new voice.
Some of Oppenheim’s previous short films were made in conjunction with The New York Times (all can be seen here) and one can easily find common threads. His best work is about people existing on the fringes, like the wealthy man who has lived exclusively on cruise ships for 19 years, or the aviation employees who exist in small trailers in a long term parking lot.
The Villages is a strange mix of the two. Like a cruise ship, it is a false utopia. Called the “adult Disneyland,” it was built from the ground up with a fictitious backstory, and designed to recall American towns that probably never existed in the first place. (A bit of a “Make America Great Again” vibe hovers over its central plaza.) And like the transient workers hanging their hats outside LAX, everyone at The Villages knows that their current address is temporary.
“Some Kind of Heaven” follows four stories. The first is of Anne and Reggie, who have been married for over four decades. She is sweet, though a little reserved, and he is clearly in the middle of a massive mental collapse, with an increasing dependence on psychedelic drugs. (This makes for some wild imagery on the golf course.)
Barbara is a kind, somewhat shy widow from Boston, slowly emerging from her grief. And Dennis — Dennis doesn’t even live at The Villages. He is a scoundrel prowling around in his van looking for a meal ticket. (Oppenheim finds a way to humanize him, and, by the end, you are rooting for him to find a path to happiness.)
The fourth story is the general background buzz of The Villages itself. (“Someone oughta make a movie about this place.”)
I spoke to Oppenheim via Zoom in advance of the film’s availability to rent on iTunes, Amazon, and many other platforms starting January 15. It is also playing at select theaters. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.
The Times of Israel: I watched the feature first, and since I’ve done a lot of work on cruise ships, I said, “Oh, I totally get the mindset of the Villages.” Then I see your most recent short before this was about a man who lived on cruise ships.
One led to the other. When I finished that short, I recognized the very similar desire to isolate yourself, escape from reality and live inside of a kind of fantasy. The Villages is a massive cruise ship on land, a utopian promise.
The film pierces the bubble of the fantasy, but does so in a kind way. It would be very easy to look down your nose at this lifestyle and these people.
Being a younger filmmaker, this was something that I was trying to keep in check. I didn’t want to make a travelogue or a carnivalesque piece. No matter what documentary you’re trying to make, the easiest thing you can do is make a subject look foolish. We tried to let this move and engage with audiences like a narrative, ensemble film. We filmed a lot of really intense situations, but also filmed situations that are comedic, like the belly dancers doing their thing, or [the club of women all named] Elaine. But if you push it, it becomes mockery very quickly.
I’m very much a New Yorker and have all the bluster of “I’ll stay here ’til I drop!” But I’ll admit, I watched this with my wife and thought, “Eh, The Villages doesn’t look 100 percent awful!”
It depends on your appetite. There certainly is a lot of stuff to do. I look where my grandparents live in a Delray Beach retirement community, and there isn’t much to do. They are inside all the time. Over time, unfortunately, most of their friends have died. The ambulances travel in without their sirens on so they don’t alert people; it’s sad.
There was something called the counterclockwise study that Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer conducted. Her theory said if you put elderly people in an environment that is designed to remind them of their youth, there aren’t just psychological benefits, but also physical ones. She found crazy things, like people’s eyesight was improving. I think the drive to create this utopian world around that idea is genius. But there are other aspects to it.
I didn’t set out to make a political movie. I don’t mention Trump, but I do have thoughts about the political makeup of the place, and the desire to live inside of a world entirely disconnected from ours.
It’s one thing to have fond memories about the past, it’s another to lie about it.
So you take all of The Villages and narrow it down, really, to four characters in three stories. What was the process of finding your subjects like?
Despite being from Florida, I didn’t know anyone there. But I started by simply going on Airbnb. I lived with two retired rodeo clowns who guided me and showed me the social ecosystem of the place. There’s a 300-page club listing, for example. In the early days, I may have been more judgmental, how I’d never seen anything like it before. It’s easy to frame it in a more dystopian fashion. But I felt a connection [to my own situation].
This was my thesis film, so I was graduating college at the time, and I recognized a desire and a desperation — like you feel it on a cruise ship, too, where you are trying to have as much fun as you can as the clock ticks. Vacation, college ending, or, in this case, the amount of years you have before you become infirm. So there is pressure: if you’re not having fun, every minute of the day, then you’re doing something wrong.
This stressed me out in a deep, profound way. So we’re here in a kind of marketing dream, but if you search for a base level of humanity and authenticity — real people going through real problems in an unreal place — that changes the setting itself.
There wasn’t too much arm-twisting with these people. Reggie, at the time, was living with a principle that he wanted to tell people how great hallucinogenic drugs are. Barbara, I think, was looking for an outlet to talk about her grief. Dennis, you know, seems like he’s been waiting his entire life probably to have someone tell his story.
Anne [Reggie’s somewhat fed-up, but still supportive wife] was the one person who required more of a conversation. I told her I was interested in a portrait of two very different people married for 43 years. How do you make that work? I told her I didn’t want to make this like the Jerry Springer show, but it had to be honest. There were times, when things start getting worse, we were there to help if we could in any way, off-camera. We would sometimes put the camera away, and just try and be there for them.
When I think of retirement communities in Florida, of course, I think of Jews, but that isn’t an aspect to this.
The Jewish community didn’t seem as vibrant to me as compared to, say, where my grandparents are. It’s pretty Christian and there’s a lot of opportunism for … well, like the one pastor you see with Dennis. He was a rock star who kind of burned out and realized that there is this “Retirement USA” booming mecca with a lot of people ready to find religion.
My editor [Daniel Garber] is also Jewish, though, and I feel like there is some kind of Jewish humor in the film. Finding comedy in tragedy, and also finding the seriousness through humor.
I see you work with your older sister as your producer.
And I have a middle sister, too, who also helps behind the scenes. But my oldest sister was on set and she did my [short films], too. She has a full-time job at Facebook and my other sister has a job at Google, so they both have their lives together, so I have to convince them to work with me.
Older sisters are an asset; no one is going to be more honest with you. Will they continue to work with you? Your career is ascending, there are people in the industry that would eat glass to be on your team.
Oh, man, I couldn’t have made the film without my oldest sister, logistically or creatively. She’s amazing, but she just had a baby, and I’m on a new project right now begging her “please!” and she’s “I have a newborn in my hands right now, I can not do this.”
Outside of her, though, I have been working with the same crew since I was 17. It’s great to have a team where you are always trying to top your last project.
It’s a stylized form of documentary that you make. It’s not Frederick Wiseman. Who do you look to for inspiration?
It’s a fusion, right? I like narrative and documentary film. I was thinking a lot about Todd Haynes’s movie “Safe,” which was an interior journey of someone realizing that their landscaped environment was not what it was cracked up to be. Then there’s the Tim Burton look at suburbia, like “Edward Scissorhands.”
For documentary mechanics, I look to someone like Ulrich Seidl, and his more distant, locked-off visual approach. The work he’s done with Ed Lachman lives in that in-between space of documentary and fiction. He may have something of a different view of humanity than I have, you know, he has a very Austrian sentiment and makes cynical films that are tough to stomach sometimes.
And then, of course Errol Morris’s work, the early films, like “Vernon, Florida.” I like Frederick Wiseman, too. I love “Primate” and “Belfast, Maine,” as a portrait of a community, but also a portrait of a people. I also love Lauren Greenfield, Sarah Polley, and Robert Altman.
When you allow yourself to do some more staged sequences — when there are narrative conventions like shot/reverse shot — you really do blow the doors open a bit. “Now I can do anything!” Are there times when you say “I need to reel this in a little?”
Oh, yeah. When we’re setting up these meticulous and composed shots we have to think “is this too much?” There are times when you use this artifice to get to something more real, but there are other times this doesn’t work. Like, we’d do an interview, hear they were going to be somewhere, and get there early so we could set up.
Usually we’d capture real moments, but have a degree of control — not really with the lighting — but on how to dial-in and shoot something. When there are two people on the screen, I feel like I am interviewing them through each other. And if the conversation starts to feel false or shy, I would hop in to get things going again.
Did you ever ask for a second take? If someone says something almost perfect, but you know it will flow better with a minor change?
[Laughing] Well, no. Not like that. I’m not giving line readings or offering intention, but there are moments, say, when Reggie and Ann are at the marriage counselor, I only had one camera, so I would shoot on them, then when the session was done, I had the therapist ask the questions again to me.
You know, he said what he said, and his emotional quality from the moment was less important in this case than the real experience.
Hey, I’m not turning you in to the documentary police.
There are plenty of ways to make a film. Look at “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” which really leans into the artifice, even by hiring actors, but they are capturing truth.
Any strict verité documentarian who says their film is more honest, well, that’s just … all documentaries violate truth. Emotional honesty is more interesting.
I just wanna check in, is Barbara okay? Is she with the Parrot Head?
She’s not with him, but they’re all doing well, thankfully. She has a new job, and everyone is okay, considering the times right now. Dennis left The Villages and lives in his van, in the swamplands, but he says he likes life there.
Is he actually 81? I believed him, but then he called his mother? How could that be?
His mother just passed, she was 107.
This is why your movie is great! My wife and I got into a whole debate if that scene was real, and we just figured it was more of Dennis kinda pulling a fast one, and he actually was much younger.
No, our minds were equally blown. The fact is the only person Dennis explicitly lies to is his mother. Kind of fitting.
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