When Jane Fonda wrote My Life So Far: Jane Fonda in 1985, the book was an honest and frank look at her life “so far.” Filmmaker Susan Lacy read the book and related to it on many levels.
Almost twenty years later, Lacy sat down with Fonda to deconstruct her life, this time on camera and it’s a different thing. Fonda was as honest and as open with Lacy and the result is a fascinating insight to a legend and the remarkable life she has lived. From Vietnam to her relationship with her father and the men in her life, nothing was off-limits for Jane Fonda: In Five Acts.
Lacy is no stranger to extensive documentaries, she also shot Spielberg, sitting down with him. I caught up with Lacy for a brief chat about working with Jane Fonda.
Why Jane Fonda? She’d written her book. What was it about that and Jane where you saw you could do this?
She wrote the biography twenty years ago. I read the book, but not everyone had. I was amazed at her story and was blown away by it. I admire her courage to tell her story so honestly and so critically. I knew there had been other things that had happened to her since she wrote that book. I approached it with the same thinking behind it with the same thinking as she says in her book – “Rich, white, privilege, royal family of Hollywood. If these things can happen to me and I learned from them, then these things can happen to anybody. Hopefully, my story will help them in some ways and not make them feel so alone. I related to certain things in her books. Most people have had some experience of unavailable parents, unfaithful husbands, fears that they weren’t good parents, problems with children and body image. Finding yourself and your real voice. They’re part of her story, but I thought a lot of people would relate to. I do think there’s quite a difference between writing a book in the privacy of your room and telling it on camera. So, that’s why.
It was 20 years before that she had written the book and this was sort of new for her too. She had to revisit, and she had to go to places emotionally that she had definitely purged in that book. To revisit them and to talk to someone about them on camera, that’s a different thing and that’s why I want to make the film.
For all those reasons, in addition to the fact that I think she’s an amazing actress. She did some very good movies. She did very good things. I was also a big anti-war activist in the seventies. I certainly knew about her from those days. She had a somewhat mixed reputation. Even then, for her to be taken seriously and the desire to be taken seriously. She came in as a beautiful actress, with Oscars and wealth behind her and to go down that long road of learning everything. She instinctively felt these things, but then to be able to part them to others and to be taken seriously, it took a lot of courage to do that. And I really admire that.
The book was written more than 20 years ago. She started writing that book when she turned 60 and now she’s going to be 82 so it was quite a while ago.
How much time did you spend with her sitting down? She’s frank in the book, and she goes to places in this documentary and she goes to places so emotional and so deep, was that easy for her to do and was anything off limits?
No. There was absolutely nothing off limits. I did 12 2-hour sit-down interviews with her. I also accompanied her to places. I went to her boarding school and interviewed her there. I went with her to the set of Grace & Frankie. I went with her to the doctors. This is not in the film, but Jane got breast cancer while we were making the film. It was nothing. It was a lumpectomy. It was very early. She didn’t have to do any chemo. She didn’t want to be a victim of cancer. There were so many other things to do, and I didn’t go there with that because it wasn’t a big story. She said it was nothing and that was the end of that and she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. I spent a lot of time with Jane. I think there was a lot of trust. She had seen my films. She trusted me because she had seen my films. Also because I am a woman. I’m easy to talk to. I don’t sit there with my set of questions. I research tremendously and know what I’m going for. We have a conversation. We had 24 hours of good conversation. I think Jane is comfortable talking. I never felt it — I knew it was something to look out for because she is an actress — but I never felt Jane had rehearsed anything. She was speaking from her heart and candidly. If I felt that, I would have been disappointed, but she everything was from the heart. There were times when we were teary. Talking about her mother was very emotional. She gets very emotional talking about her father. I think Tom leaving her and falling in love with someone else, she had to go back to that place where she was hurt and devastated. She recognized within herself how much she depended on men to feel ok about herself. Even though she had written about it, talking about it was very emotional. We had many emotional moments.
Even talking about Vietnam, Jane is still hated in some circles. It was a tough subject. There’s no question about her regret about being tricked into sitting on the aircraft. She just wasn’t thinking and there was a lot of naivete. Even going to Vietnam alone was naive. I told her that. She doesn’t regret going to Vietnam. She regrets some of the things she did there. She went there and it’s all reliving those things. As you get older, you get emotional. It was a really interesting experience. I really admired her. I also enjoyed getting beneath the surface.
I think she felt safe. I don’t interview in the normal way. I engage, and I go where the moment takes us. I know where I need to get, and I get there in a very different way.
The same with Steven Spielberg. I did 15 two-hour interviews with him. These are busy people.
In one of the interviews we did together, Jane said, Why do this if you’re not going to be totally honest?’ Once she committed to doing this. She committed to doing this. She committed to doing it honestly and deeply.
Was the archival footage easy to get?
It wasn’t difficult. It was expensive. [laughs]. I have to give a shoutout to Jessica Levin and Emma Pildes who are my producers, they lead an archive team and they went under every rock for me and kept bringing in such wonderful things.
One of the reasons, I did very few interviews for this is because she is the best teller of her story, but also,
there is so much archival footage. I went about knowing I wanted to make an archivally rich film. I learned a lot; it really spoke volumes about who she was.