The Kids Grow Up's Doug Block Talks Personal Docs

“It’s not therapy,” says Doug Block about his intimate family movies 51 Birch Street and The Kids Grow Up, in which he probes, respectively, his parents’ 54-year marriage and his relationship with his daughter on the eve of her going to college. “In fact, it’s the opposite of therapy. In the same way Birch Street was my way of putting off grieving for my mother, Kids was my way of putting off the empty nest.”

After each film premiered, the 57-year-old filmmaker celebrated with a party. “Then,” he says, “I’d go back home and crash, because I’d have to face what I avoided.”

Block’s ability to take a step back from his most personal subject matter may be the secret to his films’ successes. As he says, “It’s about how I can get out of the way and make these stories move other people.” In 2007, he crafted a list of the “The Ten Rules of Personal Documentary”: Rule No. 1—“Don’t make it all about you (even though, of course, it’s all about you).”

The New York–based Block, whose latest, Kids, opens on Friday (see review below), never intended to be the guru of “personal documentaries”—a label that he jokingly derides as “what some people might call glorified home movies.” He planned to be “a big-time fiction filmmaker,” he says. “I never wanted to make documentaries growing up. They were boring.” It wasn’t until he saw Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee’s epic meditation on love in the era of nuclear weapons, that he realized documentaries “could be funny, director-driven, and as creative as fiction films.”

His first feature, 1991’s To Heck With Hollywood!, which follows three hapless indie-film aspirants, may have helped validate his decision to move into nonfiction. After co-producing Peter Friedman’s Silverlake Life: The View From Here, the devastating 1993 doc that follows a couple dying from AIDS, Block turned his lens further inward with 1998’s Home Page, a look at proto-bloggers and his own efforts to represent himself online (giving birth to the still-active nonfiction forum d-word.com). 

But it was with 2006’s critically acclaimed 51 Birch Street that Block found his form. As a testament to the movie’s universality, it drew a diverse group of fans, from Stephen Sondheim to Judd Apatow to Michel Gondry, who champions Block for his ability to “find the extraordinary in the patient observation of everyday life.”

Though the docs have been “tricky to make,” because of the weight and responsibility that comes with capturing your own family onscreen, Block sets up basic ground rules to protect his “subjects”: “I never shoot when they don’t want me to shoot,” he says, adding, “OK, I might protest a little, but then I put the camera down.”

In a key scene from The Kids Grow Up, for example, his daughter, Lucy, sits as if for a formal interview, but then protests: “I’m really pissed off that you’re doing this right now,” she says through tears. “Instead of experiencing me going away to college, you’re just trying to film it.” Block’s response acutely sums up his process: “I’m trying to do both.”

Making Kids did present Block with “the single hardest thing I’ve ever had to shoot professionally,” and it wasn’t his daughter. Midway through Lucy’s last year in high school, his wife, Marjorie Silver, suffered a severe depressive episode. He struggled with whether to video-tape her, but eventually did. “She’s committed to destigmatizing the disease,” says Block. “She gets over it, and then we move on.”

One of his close collaborators, Esther Robinson—who produced Home Page, and directed the Warhol Factory doc A Walk Into the Sea, which Block, in turn, produced—says what’s “important to understanding Doug’s work is that he’s surrounded by tough, truth-telling women,” she says. “These ladies”—his wife and daughter—“do not let him get away with anything.”

As a logical follow-up to Kids, Block is now starting a new project about his marriage to Silver on the eve of their 25th anniversary. As a wedding videographer on the side—he has shot some 120 nuptials—Block hopes to bring the same candid humor and sensitivity to another deceptively simple subject: “What makes it work for some couples,” he asks, “and why doesn’t it work for others?”

 
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