Best Southern Film Nominee:
The Mayor, Jared Scheib
In the final installment of our series spotlighting the nominees for our “Best Southern Film Award” at the Little Rock Film Festival, Natalie Elliott chats with Jared Scheib, who directed The Mayor. Be sure to check out Natalie’s interviews with the directors of Pilgrim Song and Tchoupitoulas, Levi Agee’s interviews with the co-director of A Sister’s Call and the director of The Dynamiter, and Jake Ross’s interview with the director of Beasts of the Southern Wild.
The best documentaries often explore a single, vibrant microcosm, with characters inhabiting a sub-stratum so hidden from our day-to-day view that their mere surface investigation is absolutely fascinating. The Mayor is a documentary surprising in its depth, examining what would be, for some, a population so omnipresent that it might seem pedestrian to devote an entire film to their exploits. And, even in this case, we mean “exploits” with all of its juiciest connotations.
Sam Berger is a quick-witted, widowed, eighty-eight-year-old transplanted Brooklynite. He now roams the carpeted hallways of a sprawling retirement community, a luxurious facility home to at least two hundred other seniors. His charm is so infectious folks call him “the mayor.” He moderates bingo games, checks his e-mail, and performs impromptu chivalrous feats for unsuspecting little old ladies. The quick smirk that punctuates his deadpan introduction is, at once, the greatest hint at Sam’s demeanor.
Among Sam’s friends, who also freely kid and gossip and harangue each other, we meet the bawdy Ceil Schwartz and her affably tuned-out husband of sixty-two years, Eddie. There’s also the prim and cheeky Dorothy Wyll, who later reveals herself to be the director’s grandmother. The documentary combines fly-on-the-wall footage of these seniors going about their daily business—joking over breakfast, shuffling around the hair salon—with the scathingly frank conversations they have behind closed doors. Peppered throughout are intimate interviews that not only facilitate a historical perspective on who these people are as individuals, but also offer an unfettered existential mirror to the viewer: This is what it’s like to become old.
Dorothy admits that, despite the ever-circulating single residents in the community, she doesn’t have sex, still devoted to the memory of her deceased husband. Sam, observing the glaring ambulance at the facility’s entrance, muses unenthusiastically, "Ah, look who’s here." Ceil cajoles Eddie into admitting he doesn’t look at her naked body anymore, and that their marriage is that of two adoring but platonic friends who happen to share a living space. Sam, for all his tomcatting around, even confesses, without batting an eye, that he’d have sex with the first woman he could find—in the event he could actually experience an erection again.
On the other side of these occasionally harrowing observations about aging, Sam and his crew give us the impression that being old can be fun, lighthearted, full of coy games and socializing. Sam, for his part, finds himself entangled with the considerably younger Cordy, an ebullient Southern woman who relocated to the retirement home, perhaps before her time, due to health complications. We’re privy to their cozy nighttime rituals, like readying the heating pad on the living room sofa. But there are still petty disagreements in paradise—for one, Cordy’s daughter disapproves of their relationship. The more Cordy asks of Sam, the less emotionally accessible he becomes.
Beneath all the little enjoyments, The Mayor still manages to reveal the life experienced before the confines of the retirement community. The scenes of Sam watching Super 8 footage of he and his wife on vacation, or of Dorothy visiting her husband’s grave, are almost unbearable to witness. In most moments, these are two wisecracking, good-natured people, at peace with their current milieu. Nevertheless, they are but frail humans. What they know about this condition is at once frightening and enviable. Confronting and learning to accept who they—and we—become, with time, is the true work of this tender film.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: The documentary focuses on the exploits of “The Mayor,” but also incorporates intimate interviews with a few other subjects, including your own grandmother. Can you describe how the idea came to you?
JARED SCHEIB: Throughout my time at university, my grandmother, Dorothy, told me, “Jared, you’ve got to come film me and my friends here. The conversations are so funny, it would be just like The Golden Girls!”
I always responded, “Uh-huh. One day, Maw Maw,” thinking it quite unlikely.
But before my final semester of college, where I was signed up for my first documentary class and looking for a subject for the documentary I’d be making, I was having dinner with my grandmother at her retirement community when this couple walked by holding hands. My grandmother, more the prim and proper type, sneered, “Oh, get a room!”
I laughed and asked, “Maw Maw, are people having sex here?”
“Oh yeah, just because you get old doesn’t mean you lay down and die!”
There was a bit of pride in her voice, a defiance of the assumed cultural norm.
On a more serious note, my grandmother also had a close friend whose Alzheimer’s progressed to the point that she couldn’t function in the home anymore, and she had to be moved to another place. At that age, you can lose your friends to Alzheimer’s, dementia—cognitive ailments play a social role.
These two realizations—sex and dementia—revealed to me that, in spite of my expectations to the contrary, there appeared to be a life below the surface that I wasn’t privy to. I explored similar themes in the short doc I made at USC, and felt empowered to make a full-length doc in the same style, so I took my grandmother up on her offer.
We held a meeting for any residents who would be interested in participating, and Sam showed up because it was something unusual. The film wasn’t supposed to be The Mayor, but Sam was the most excited about the project and was willing to give us any kind of access we wanted. So about one third of the two hundred and fifty hours of footage ended up being focused on him.
My first cut of the film, though, featured twelve different characters in equal measure. It relied heavily on a conversational feel, so we weren’t able to go in-depth with any character in particular. I thought some of the strongest films I’d seen followed the emotional journey of a single character, and Sam was the obvious go-to for this. He and Cordy epitomized what I’d been hoping to find going in: seniors living life to the fullest. Then I asked myself which of the others had gone the deepest with us—my grandmother and her friend Ceil were the two answers to that question.
I held a rough-cut screening of the new version, and knew I’d found the film. So it became The Mayor before it premiered in Israel at DocAviv. After that I received suggestions to balance out the characters a bit, so I cut it down by fifteen minutes and screened that version for the first time at LRFF, actually. I was floored by the response, and feel the film is as strong as it can be.
Documentary, for me, is an exploration. The Mayor became The Mayor in response to the characters we discovered and the footage we took; it only became The Mayor in the editing room.
THE OA: Was it difficult to persuade any of the subjects to be filmed? What was the initial response from the retirement community when you approached them about filming?
JS: We were rejected a few times by the owners of the community, but they finally consented, subject to some conditions that were amenable to us. As for the residents, Sam was the easiest person one could ever hope to film, which I’ve thanked him for many times over. He was very easy to talk to, and didn’t skip a beat in giving us his consent when I asked him if we could show up to film his morning routine. That was some of the most powerful footage we captured.
My grandmother was a shoo-in, but she didn’t realize how personal it would get. She was happy to do initial interviews and to be filmed at dinnertime, but she became more hesitant as the interviews became more intimate. Still, I was her grandson, so she couldn’t resist. She eventually let us film her morning exercise routine (stationary bike while singing—she used to be a professional singer), and her putting on makeup and eating breakfast.
Ceil, on the other hand, refused all of this after much consideration. She was happy to talk about her body and sex and anything else, but she wasn’t comfortable with us actually filming her in her not-done-up state. Still, she gave us a lot of access by any normal standard.
There was a bit of “Southern dignity,” if you will, that we couldn’t penetrate with some people, but I was really surprised by how open the vast majority of people were willing to be as we continued to build friendships with them. At the end of the day, they weren’t talking to a camera—they were talking to two friends in the room with them.
THE OA: One subtler thing The Mayor addresses is the aging Jewish population of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Sam is originally from New York, and Marguerite seems to have a heavy Eastern European accent, but your grandmother has a lovely Southern lilt and still seems fairly devout. Can you talk a bit about this micro-community in Texas?
JS: Most everyone in the film except Cordy is Jewish, which is incidental but also a reflection of the majority-Jewish community. The Dallas I know is a Jewish and secular Dallas, as I grew up in a Conservative Jewish synagogue. I was so insulated that I only realized after leaving Dallas that the majority of the city is not Jewish.
The number of Jews in Dallas was, from my perspective, infinite. Unfortunately, then, I can’t give you much perspective on it being a “micro-community,” as it seemed to me like the whole world.
THE OA: Do you think the retirement community where The Mayor was filmed is a nice place? Sam calls it “paradise.” Do your grandmother and the other folks you interviewed seem to be happy there?
JS: Like anywhere, there are pros and cons; overall, I think it’s nice. It took an interesting turn before production, because the population of seventy-year-olds I knew in the years leading up to filming had become eighty-year-olds. They were less active and weren’t as quick to draw for various activities the social director would concoct, which was a challenge for us.
My grandmother absolutely refused to leave, and despite her incessant complaints about the food (other people loved the food, for the record), she was happy there. She had a sentimental attachment because she initially moved in with her husband, who passed away within the first year. So she had the original apartment with all of their things in it, and didn’t want to “move on” from him in any way.
THE OA: Have any of the interviewees seen the completed film? How did they react?
JS: Sam, Ceil, Dorothy, and Cordy have seen the longer cut. Sam tapped me on the shoulder halfway through and said, “Jared, you’ve made a terrific film. Really beautiful.” But by the end of the film, he wasn’t exactly singing the same tune. He wasn’t happy with the way he looked in the final sequence, and claims to regret some of the things he said about sex. He also expressed that he wishes the film had focused less on him and shown the other residents more.
My grandmother was upset that she didn’t have more screen time after all the time we spent interviewing. Ceil said, “Why the hell do I need to watch someone get ready for ten minutes?” Cordy, whom I was most afraid of showing the film to, loved it. She told me she watched it with her family multiple times and was “so proud” of me.
I haven’t shown it to anyone else in the community, as unfortunately most of them have passed away. So many of the interviewees didn’t make it into the film in any substantive way, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. I did orchestrate the creation of a bunch of “Old Stories” for the rest of the characters and held a screening of those hoping it would suffice, but they kept asking about the film! I wrestle with what the right thing to do there is.
THE OA: What was it like, interviewing your grandmother about her sex life? She seems so shy and dainty. Were you surprised by how forthcoming she was? Were there any moments that were particularly uncomfortable for you?
JS: I didn’t have a problem asking because I had an extremely open discourse with her to begin with. We talked about all things under the sun. She loved me, and she knew I really cared about what I was asking her. I would sometimes get frustrated because she refused to supply a reason to support her opinions; she would just keep insisting, “Because I just do, Jared!” That’s actually pretty understandable.
I recall crying on a couple of occasions while talking to her about my grandfather, whom I was also close with. It was pretty difficult for me to continue talking to her with a pit in my throat. We also shared a lot of laughs. Because I knew her, I was able to grapple with her and see past any B.S. or airs she might try to put on. I am so happy and fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend so much time with her, and in such depth, in the last couple years of her life. It was something special. I’m sorry to reveal that she did indeed pass away in October of 2010.
THE OA: Cordy mentions that she wants to keep her relationship with Sam secret from their families, yet the consent to be filmed in particularly private moments—can you explain that disconnect?
JS: Sam appeared to be okay with having anything filmed, though at one point it became clear that he might have been acting some, after Cordy accused him of such on camera. This was a terrifying, temporarily discouraging, but ultimately important realization: it’s who Sam is, a salesman. The camera seemed to present an opportunity to make life appear how they wanted it to appear, and it was our job to fight past this veneer.
Cordy would switch fluidly between being in the moment and being aware of the filmmaking process. She would tell us not to film things and then laugh about it later. I think this was a defense mechanism, in a way, to prevent us from accessing the real substance that would inevitably come once she was no longer aware. We were lucky that she was disposed to committing to the moment and dragging Sam along with her, but I also think we got played some. Sounds cynical, doesn’t it? I think Cordy ultimately wanted people (and her family) to know the truth, and she wanted to help us discover whatever we possibly could. It’s all a sophisticated, enigmatic, opaque dance, trying to pursue truth.
THE OA: Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. Do you think there’s anything slightly exploitative about hilarious footage like, say, folks getting into a heated spat over Bingo calls?
JS: No, because amazingly, it’s exactly what happened. Gratuitous? Possibly, but for me the Bingo scene is an opportunity to show Sam interacting with people and handling stress. I try to be sensitive to exploitation and am aware that the trailer and marketing materials are slightly that way; even my pitch of the film is slightly exploitative: “Romance, relationships, gossip, and old people.” I don’t feel great about this, but it sells a lot better. I hope people will see that the film itself is not exploitative and thus overshadows this slight transgression.
I think exploitation happens when you portray someone in a way that is intentionally untruthful. My goal was to show life as it actually was in the community. When you have footage of someone, you can basically make them say (or appear to have done) anything. I believe it’s my duty (yes, in a righteous way) as the filmmaker to shepherd “the truth” (lowercase T) as best I can, without getting in the way.
Let me throw a thought at you: If I hadn’t included the Bingo explosion, maybe I would’ve been exploiting the audience.
THE OA: Everyone who has seen the film is completely entranced by the scene you mentioned earlier, where you chronicle Sam’s arduous morning routine. Can you talk a little more about that?
JS: I asked Sam on a whim one night if we could show up the next morning. The idea was just to get B-roll, I think. He didn’t bat an eyelash and gave us his keys.
We showed up at five in the morning and filmed everything. We didn’t say a single word to him, and he didn’t acknowledge our existence except in one moment when we were in his path and he paused to let us move.
After we stopped filming some two hours later, I immediately turned to my production partner and said this would be either the beginning or end of the film. For me, it is the big reveal. It underpins the entire film with immense gravity: Every single day, Sam goes through this grueling routine—which an audience can barely stomach for twelve minutes—in order to be able to enjoy life. I could watch that scene forever, and struggled to cut it down. Sam’s struggle is borne raw.
THE OA: What do you think is the most important realization you had while making this film, and what is the single most unexpected thing that occurred?
JS: Attitude is everything. Granted, your physical health is really important, but it seems that attitude can affect your health in the long run. The people in the film got up every day with a zest for life, and it was an inspiration to me. I can only hope that in my last years I find as much meaning in life; the film grounded me.
So many outrageous things happened, but there’s one I want to underscore: Shortly after starting to film I realized and told my production partner that we were probably going to have to witness and come to terms with the illnesses and deaths of many people who would become close friends of ours. It was a sobering, life-affirming, jubilant, heart-shattering experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Death is the end; live it up while you’re here. Attitude is everything.