Thursday, February 01, 2018

Wednesdays at Michael's by Diane Clehane

Documentary Filmmaker Sandra Luckow On Tonya Harding & 'Madness'

Stu Zakim, Diane Clehane and Sandra Luckow

I’ve always believed real life is much stranger than fiction and this week’s lunch date at Michael’s, documentary filmmaker Sandra Luckow, has made a career about proving just how true that old chestnut really is. When our mutual friend, Stu Zakim, asked me if I wanted to meet Sandra to talk about her latest work, That Way Madness Lies, I jumped at the chance.

Sandra has worked with several industry icons including Frances Ford Coppola, (Michael’s regular!) Bonnie Timmerman and Paul Schrader. In 1996 she made Belly Talkers for Miramax. She has been teaching film production at Yale University's School of Art since 1997 and also currently teaching film making at Columbia University and Barnard. Sandra has also worked as a camera operator on several reality television shows and directed numerous documentary shorts.


It was only recently that Sandra landed on my radar when I spotted her talking about Tonya Harding on ESPN’s 30 for 30 The Price of Gold. 32 years ago, she made her college thesis documentary film about a 15-year-old figure skater she had trained with in Clackamas, Oregon who was going to her first national skating competition. (Sandra’s mother made many of Harding’s skating costumes for her.) Eight years later that girl was involved in one of the biggest sports scandals in history. Since then, clips of Sandra’s film about Harding, Sharp Edges, have been shown all over the world and used in 60 Minutes; GSN Anything to Win - Tonya Harding, NBC’s Sochi Olympics Tonya & Nancy and the ESPN program I happened to catch a few months ago. Sharp Edges is a fascinating documentary made before the scandal that catapulted figure skating in the pop cultural stratosphere. After the knee whacking incident and the ensuing drama surrounding the 1994 Olympics (“A watershed year for 24/7 media and the birth of ‘alternative facts’”) Sandra, by her own description, became part of the “troop of traveling vaudevillians” that can talk about Tonya Harding with some sense of perspective and consistency.

As someone who made a documentary about Harding before the scandal, Sandra told me, “It’s fascinating to see that the only variables in the narratives told have been Tonya’s. Everyone else has been absolutely consistent. The only one whose story has changed is Tonya’s.”

And now, the disgraced skater – and convicted felon – has embraced the fictional feature film, I Tonya, starring Margot Robbie and Allison Janney – as fact. “We live in a culture where facts don’t matter and just because someone says something it is expected to be taken as truth. Even Margot (who said she relied heavily on Sharp Edges to ‘create’ the character of Tonya in the film) has said [of this story], ‘The truth doesn’t exist.” She continued, “That’s what kills me. People come to me after seeing the film and say, ‘I really understand Tonya now’ and I say, ‘No you don’t! The film is fiction!  The films made about another period in time reveal more about the time it is made than the time in which it’s meant to illuminate.”

In some cosmic way, said Sandra, this connects to her latest film perfectly. “With That Way Madness Lies I feel I was prescient,” she said. “The assistant district attorney [on Harding’s case] told me Tonya was the biggest sociopath he’d ever met. I asked a doctor for the definition of a sociopath and he said it’s a person with no remorse. Tonya’s has been unremorseful and has certainly not forgiven her mother.”

In speaking to Sandra it is easy to see how frustrating it is for her to see so much interest in Sharp Edges all these years later while her latest and most personal film, That Way Madness Lies, which speaks to one of the most pressing social issues of our time -- severe mental illness and our “broken, treacherous system of dealing with it or not dealing with it” – has yet to find a wider audience.

“The last thing I ever thought I’d be doing was a film like this,” she told me as she recounted her brother, Duanne’s, horrifying descent into mental illness which began with his first psychotic break in 2010. “For the past five years he has been in and out of hospitals and jails in Oregon,” she began. Sometime after being admitted to Oregon State Hospital (the same hospital that is the setting for the book and the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) Duanne’s phone was confiscated. Sandra got a hold of it and found over 250 clips of her brother in the throes of his illness. She took it to Dr. Larry Davidson at Yale and he said, ‘In 25 years, I’ve never seen this first person [perspective]. It’s the most important research I’ve ever seen.’ I mandate you to keep filming.”

And so she did. But instead of just making a highly personal film, Sandra told me she “fell through the broken rabbit hole of the mental healthcare system.” Duanne has been arrested 11 times, but due to “economic equation” used to assess a patient’s need for long term hospitalization, it’s been an on-going cycle that has resulted in her brother being indigent and homeless for periods of time. “We need a bill – policy on involuntary holds. Where does the madness lie?”

Then, Sandra made a stunning disclosure that dramatically underscored her passion for finding a wide audience for the film. Last year, after the shooting at the Clackamas Town Center in Oregon, she feared the worst. “I thought it was my brother. I have PTSD. Every time something like this happens, I feel it is one step closer to me being a victim and my brother being a shooter. I have no intentions of surviving it.”

Those powerful words should surely move Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto who executive producer Abigail Disney is currently talking to in hopes of arranging a screening for members of congress. Sandra has had screenings at Yale inviting mental health professionals, advocates and first responders. Doctors who have seen the film applaud its unique perspective showing mental illness “from the family side.” The next screening of ‘Madness’ will be for New York Women for Film and Television on February 26.

Sandra and Stu are currently working together to find a sales agent and distributor which is critical in getting That Way Madness Lies into the big festivals. Sandra is meeting with Neon, the distributor who picked up I Tonya at the Toronto Film Festival, to see if Sharp Edges can run a companion piece and by extension get some serious muscle behind Madness.

Sandra is determined to get this film out there in hopes of making a real difference. “If Icarus, a personal film, can do what it did to expose doping with the Russian [Olympic athletes], we should be able fix the broken mental health system with this film.” But still, she knows the power of celebrity is what really moves the needle. “I’ve made a number of films over the year but all people want to talk to me about is Tonya Harding.” But now, Sandra has a lot more to say.


Seen & Heard Around the Room

Wayne Kabak and Lawrence Kudlow on Table One … Peter Brown on Two … James Cohen on Three … Jaqui Safra on Four and Allen & Company’s Stan Shuman on Five … Producer Beverly Camhe fresh off the alternative state of the union address held downtown on Monday night. “It was fantastic!” she told me.

We were riveted by a very animated Corey Lewandowski having a lively chat with Andrew Stein on Table Six. (It appears Corey never blinks) After lunch, the two Trump boosters continued their conversation while waiting for their coats. Corey had some large luggage he wheeled out the door and stopped to chat with John Catsimatidis before running (literally) down the street to chase a cab.

Moving on .. Peggy Siegal, who we haven’t seen here in ages, joined some younger women who, we’re told, are studio flacks, at table in the center of the dining room… New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia was at his usual perch on Table Eight with Judy Price … Town & Country scribe Vicky Ward was on Ten …Francine LeFrak on Twelve .. PR maestro and political analyst Robert Zimmerman with The Paley Center’s Maureen Reidy on Fifteen … Coach’s brand president and CEO Joshua Schulman on Eighty-one … Chris Taylor on Twenty and Suzanne Dawson on Twenty-two.

- Diane Clehane

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