Who is Molly Ivins? Why should I know her name? Janice Engel brings Molly Ivins to the forefront in Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins. Ivins was a woman ahead of her time. She was outspoken, witty and sharp. She was a journalist who referred to George W. Bush a “Shrub.” Ivins was a Democrat in Texas.
She appeared in over 400 papers, commenting on politics in the wittiest and sharpest of ways. She was feisty. In Janice Engel documentary, it’s impossible to watch it and not wonder about the current state of American politics and freedom of the press. Watching this documentary, Engel shines a light on the courage, the fire and Ivin’s career path. The documentary uses archival footage and newsreels to tell the story. One that is even more of an important reminder of integrity and staying true to values.
I caught up with Engel briefly to talk about the documentary as the film hits cinemas this weekend:
I loved Molly’s fire and persistence. I had no idea who she was, but she had that. It really made me want to dive down this rabbit hole into who Molly is. What drew you to her?
I was not part of Molly’s constituency. I did not grow up reading her. I’m a Baby Boomer, so when she was coming of age, I was out in California and I was just out of college. I grew up in New York. I lived in LA. I grew up on the left coast and moved to the other left coast. I wasn’t part of her readership. I knew what she said on Letterman, but my producing partner on this, James Egan, he was the same way. Both of us were like, “How come we don’t know about Molly?” It depends on where you’re from.
In 2012, James called me. He’d been wanting to make a movie for a while. He said, “You have to go to see the Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins starring Kathleen Turner. It’s a one-woman show. I know the playwright.” He said, “Don’t ask. Just go.” So, I bought a ticket and laughed my ass off through the whole thing. I came home and Googled Molly Ivins until 2 in the morning. She was so brilliant. She was so funny. So spot on to the time. Talk about relevant, and this was 2012 when Obama was in office. It was incredible, and I called him the next morning asking “What’s been done?” He said, “Nothing. Except for this place.” Through the playwrights, they put us in touch with Molly’s Chief of Stuff. She called her assistant, “Chief of Stuff.” She IMBD’d James and I. Betsy – the gatekeeper, turned us onto Molly’s executor who was her former agent Dan Green and her estate. Within a couple of weeks, we had the green light. We brought on our third producer who is a bonafide Texan. James and I are carpetbaggers; he’s from Baltimore and I’m from New York. Carlisle by no mistake, not only grew up reading Molly Ivins, she grew up in the same neighborhood. She went to the same private school. She was also a child of oil and gas privilege. She was an activist in her own right, so there’s no mistake. Six weeks after seeing the play, (we just passed our seven-year mark.) we were on the road, in Texas, and we filmed our first six interviews in Austin and had our first fundraiser.
You talk about the time it took to be made. It couldn’t be more timely. We need journalists like that. People who embody that. What kept you going to tell Molly’s story and bringing it to the screen?
When you make a documentary, get ready for a long ride. Especially when you’re going to do a real deep dive dig. Whether you’re going to do boots on the ground and you’re embedding the subject matter, whatever it is. Or you’re going to do a deep archaeological dig into the archives if someone has passed, and that’s what I had to do.
Get ready for the long haul because documentaries aren’t easily funded. Unless you have a track record and the funding is there. When you’re doing somebody and there’s never been anything done. She was a woman who speaks truth to power. Nothing had been done. I wonder why. She was a woman who speaks truth to power. I say it again. So, you have to be prepared for the long haul, and you have to find the money to be able to sustain yourself. That in itself is part of the journey. I think as a creative person; I look at each project as its own living breathing entity. This had a life of its own, you have to get out of your own way and allow it to take its own trajectory. You always have a sense of purpose, and you have to make an effort. At some point, there is an energy of its own.
We couldn’t find money, but as soon as we stepped out of the way, it had its own trajectory. Right in 2015 when we did our Kickstarter campaign, I said, “Molly is driving this bus and I’m just thrilled to be on this ride.” That’s true. If you look at the trajectory – I had a rough cut a year ago. August 28. We submitted it to Sundance. I’d been culling it to get it to where I wanted it to be. I had no expectations at all for Sundance. We submitted it to SXSW. A week after the mid-terms, we got a phone call from Sundance. I’d say someone is driving the bus. The trajectory is unbelievable. Here we are about to roll out. We rolled out nationwide on August 30th, and that happens to be Molly Ivin’s 75th birthday. Isn’t that weird?
That’s so crazy.
The time is so right. She is a call to action, and it’s a really important one.
I love what she brought to democracy and politics. You talked about culling the material, how do you even cull that to bring your narrative?
That is always a process. I’ve worked in TV where I didn’t have time. It’s like you’re on a track, you have a team of people working with you, and you don’t have time to sit with it and to really find the nuggets to do the deep dive. When you’re a teeny team, it takes time.
Documentaries mostly come together in post. You’ll be culling it down by themes. There’s a storyline I look at, is it a biopic? Is it a story about someone’s life? I do index cards. I do colored index cards based on themes, childhood, the private Molly. I look at courage, speaking truth to power, and alcoholism. Around 2014, there were certain media companies, and two or three people said, it’s a biopic, she’s dead and we’re not interested. We looked at each other, and I started thinking about how to restructure it. Finally, in 2018, I was about to bring on an editor because I’d been editing everything myself. Monique Zavistovski and I finished each other’s sentence; she’s who I brought on.
I had lunch with Kate, who’s an editor, and she had finished her salad. She said, “What’s wrong with a biopic?” RBG had just come out. So had Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I said, “Nothing.” It was like she had released me from my self-imposed prison. I got on a plane to New York, and I jotted it down and the structure poured out of me. I had boards and I went back to the first one, and that’s the film you see today.
Making a film is a process and you have to go through the pain of the process.
It was just so fascinating to watch and learn about Molly. What was it like to bring Molly home to SXSW?
It was one of the greatest moments. That screening was at 11.30 in the morning. It was sold out. Many people hadn’t seen each other since Molly’s memorial. The longing and yearning were a triumphant opening of everyone’s hearts. Molly was there. She was so present. It was the greatest moment. It was amazing to bring her home to her family and friends. You could hear sobbing.