Other segments from the episode on January 22, 2007
DATE January 22, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Mark Harris discusses his new book, "Grave
Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a
Natural Way of Burial"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A funeral may be one of the most expensive purchases a family makes, and the
embalming, expensive coffins and concrete vaults are designed to prevent the
dead from returning from dust. My guest Mark Harris has been looking at
cheaper and more natural and environmental alternatives to the funeral
industry send-off, including cremation, burials at sea and the new green
burial movement. Harris has written a new book called "Grave Matters: A
Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial." He's
a former environmental columnist for the Los Angeles Times syndicate.
Mark Harris, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we talk about some of the
alternatives to the kind of funeral industry approach to burial, let's talk
about some of the aspects of the funeral industry that are seen by many as
being problems. You know, the casket and the embalming process are designed
in a way to prevent the body from returning to the earth.
Mr. MARK HARRIS: Well, that's certainly true. I think it says a lot about
what we as Americans have wanted from a funeral. And in some ways that's
because I don't think we knew what the alternatives are. The American funeral
has developed from more natural roots. I mean, when you look back at the
American funeral at the beginning of our country's founding, it really was a
dust-to-dust kind of burial. A family would wash and dress a body at home.
They would lay it out in the front parlor and then they would place the body
in a vaultless grave in a very basic, usually pine, casket, and it would
invite the elements.
We have lots of reasons why this is different now. And, in some ways, I think
it's because we have wandered into a kind of modern burial that works, in some
ways, at cross purposes to what we want.
GROSS: Now cemeteries, particularly the more high-priced ones, are designed
to look like parks or lawns and are named accordingly. But what are some of
the environmental issues beneath the surface?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, when you look at some of the environmental aspects of the
modern funeral, I mean, I think they're really of the same kind and order that
you'd expect of any large-scale industrial operation. I mean, if you look at
some of the numbers, you now, over time the typical 10-acre swatch of cemetery
ground contains enough coffin wood to construct more than 40 houses, nearly a
thousand tons of casket steel and another 20,000 tons of vault concrete. If
you add to that a volume of toxic formalin that's nearly sufficient to fill a
small backyard swimming pool and then on top of that you've got untold gallons
of pesticide and weed killer that are used to keep the cemetery grounds really
pretty naturally green.
GROSS: Of course, what a lot of people object most to about the standard
funeral now is the price. What's the average cost of a funeral in the United
Mr. HARRIS: You know, the average cost, according to the Funeral Directors
Association, is around 6500, $7,000. Now that does not include the cost of
the cemetery, so that doesn't include say the burial vault. It doesn't
include the cost of digging the grave and closing the grave, the mounting of
the foundation for the headstone, the cost of the headstone. So when you look
at it in actual dollars, the average cost of the standard funeral runs close
GROSS: You follow one specific funeral from start to finish...
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...in the book. Break down some of the costs within that funeral for
Mr. HARRIS: When you walk into a funeral home, the funeral director, by law,
is required to hand you a general price list of goods and services. And when
I wrote this book, I went around to a bunch of funeral homes and I asked them
to hand me that sheet. When you look at the sheet, it runs front and back and
there are quite a number of things. You know, it starts with embalming, which
is the bedrock of the funeral industry. And you're looking at--at least in
the sheets that I saw--you're looking at something close to $800, some less,
And then, you know, you look at the hairstyling to turning over to
beauticians, $90. The casketing the remains, actually putting the body in the
box is, you know, $50. And then depending on what kind of viewing that you
want to have, if you want to hold it at the funeral home, if you want to hold
it in the church itself, you know you're looking at around $400. The bigger
costs--I mean, the major cost is really the coffin. And the prices here range
very widely. From the basic coffin, you can spend a couple thousand dollars,
and these are wood coffins. And if you want to have something more elaborate,
you start getting into metal coffins, and then you get to copper coffins and
ones that are virtually indestructible, you're looking at close to $10,000.
When you get to the cemetery itself, some of the plots at the cemetery grounds
that I looked at in our general area that were close to a thousand dollars.
But even for that basic price, it doesn't even cover half the price of what
you're paying to actually bury somebody in the cemetery.
GROSS: Let's look at some of the alternatives to the standard cemetery
funeral that you describe in your book. You know, you devote a whole chapter
to cremation. Is cremation considered like an environmentally correct
alternative to funeral industry burial?
Mr. HARRIS: When you look at cremation and you see the resources and the
polluted generation--that are generated in the course of cremating a body, I
think it's significantly less than the resources and pollution that's
generated in the course of outfitting and conducting the modern American
funeral. So I include it, but it's true that on a continuum of green burials,
if you look at cremation on one end and burial in someone's rural backyard or
in one of these natural cemeteries, cremation certainly is on the low side.
Cremation does require some resources, generally natural gas and electricity
sufficient to create temperatures in a hearth of 1600 to 1800 degrees for the
better part of two hours in most cases. And it does create some--it does
generate some pollution. It does send some pollutants up the smokestack. The
pollutant that's of most concern is mercury. Mercury is a component of the
silver fillings that many of us baby boomers have in our mouths and cremation,
the high temperatures in the retort, vaporizes the mercury in our mouths and
sends it up the smokestack, where it's caught by the prevailing winds and then
it's deposited over the ground and over bodies of water. There it's taken up
by fish. And since it doesn't biodegrade, it remains with them. And when we
eat fish, we consume, you know, a portion of that mercury.
GROSS: Well, so that's all from the fillings in our teeth.
Mr. HARRIS: That's all from the fillings in our teeth. Whether or not it's
a big issue depends on whose figures you believe. Now, the EPA in conjunction
with the cremation industry has found that we don't really generate that much
mercury via crematoria in the United States. Other groups have contended that
we generate a lot more than that.
Great Britain, for one, where 70 percent of the population is cremated,
believes that the issue there is significant enough that the government is
requiring its crematoria to cut mercury emissions in half by the year 2012.
GROSS: How do cremation costs compare with the kind of typical, the average
Mr. HARRIS: The average cremation cost is about $1400. It can be
significantly less if you go through a funeral home perhaps that owns its own
crematoria or if you are a member of a memorial society, which may have made
arrangements with a local crematoria or a funeral home to guarantee prices are
significantly less than that. So you may pay somewhere on the order of, you
know, $500 or less.
GROSS: My guess is Mark Harris. His new book is called "Grave Matters."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Mark Harris. We're talking about his new book,
"Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural
Way of Burial."
Now, you've also looked at natural cemeteries. What makes a cemetery a
Mr. HARRIS: That's a really good question. The cemetery that I saw in--I've
seen a couple of these, but the one that I visited first in Ramsey Creek in
South Carolina, the first natural cemetery in the United States, opened to
burials in 1998, is a pine forest of some 30 acres with a dirt trail that
winds through it. The bodies go into the ground unembalmed. Coffins, when
used at all, are of minimum make, fashioned from cardboard or simple pine in
most cases. Vaults are banned. You can't have any plastic flowers. And the
goal there is clearly to allow the body to return to the elements as directly
and simply as possible, to return as, you know, that Genesis verse, to return
dust to dust.
I went down in 2003 for a visit and this was the genesis of this book. I
walked the grounds with the co-founder, Kimberley Campbell, who founded Ramsey
Creek with her husband, Billy. And it was so apparently a place of life, not
of death. It's a place where death is celebrated as a natural part of life,
where death becomes a natural, you know, the body can join the natural cycle
of life at death. And it seems a really-it struck me as being a really
logical thing to do. So that is the best of the natural cemeteries.
Now, we use to have cemeteries like this in the United States. There was a
whole movement in the early to late 1800s called the Rural Cemetery Movement,
where we looked to move crowded cemeteries out of the cities and we move them
into more natural locales, and we began establishing those there. And Ramsey
Creek is really an attempt to do that in our own modern time.
GROSS: So what are some of the differences between like this new type of
environmentally correct natural cemetery and the older cemeteries before all
the, you know, modernizing materials and stuff existed?
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. The rural cemeteries of the mid-1800s, they had many of
these same natural components that we've talked about with the natural
cemeteries of today. Couple of things do set them apart. The Ramsey Creek
model and natural cemetery model, the best of those, seek to use burials and
the designation of cemetery ground as a way to preserve land. So, you know,
in the case of Ramsey Creek, Billy Campbell, who owned this property, wanted
to preserve it from development so he turned a large chunk of it into a
cemetery. It's a very compelling scheme for preserving land.
Also, Billy Campbell took it a step farther, and he uses burials as part of a
ecological restoration plan so that it's not just that you're given a green
burial in a green space that protects the land from development but Billy
brings in local scientists and biologists to construct a science-based plan
for the ecological restoration of lands, to return the land to its more
natural state. So he sites graves in places that could best use nourishment.
He allows only plants on the graves that are drawn from the palette of plants
that are native to the area. So you have two things going on here in this new
version of the rural cemetery. You have protection of land and you also have
restoration of land.
GROSS: And in those new cemeteries, are there markers where you know your
loved one is buried and you can go visit them at that site?
Mr. HARRIS: Yes. At Ramsey Creek there are flat field stones that are
generally collected on site, that are native to the ecological stratum. And
they do serve as--they sit flush to the ground. They do serve as headstones.
But, of course, over time, they themselves will weather into the landscape.
Billy Campbell expects them to last probably no longer than 100 years. He
does, in that case, have a GPS system that marks each grave site so future
generations could come back and via GPS find the exact location of the grave
of someone who had been buried there.
GROSS: Boy, that's wishful thinking that the technology 100 years from now
will be able to translate today's GPS system.
Mr. HARRIS: That's right.
GROSS: Anyway, we'll let that go.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah.
GROSS: Well, some people are trying to do home burials now, which is, of
course, a very old idea. But what are the laws now about home burials? Are
there laws that define how and when and where you can do that?
Mr. HARRIS: There are various state and local laws that need to be taken
into consideration, but generally home burials are allowed in the vast
majority of states. I think the first thing that I learned when I was
beginning working on this book is that, I think, surprised me and surprised
many people who were first reading this book is that embalming, which
obviously can only be done by a funeral director, is almost never required.
So if you don't need to embalm a body and family members can--and friends can
die at home, then there's no reason really to call a funeral director. You
can conduct many of these--you can wash and you can lay a body out in your own
home. The families that I interviewed held bodies for a good couple of days,
up to a week in some cases, where the body was laid on a bed of dry ice. The
wake was held in the home. Visitors came and went, paid their respects to the
family. And they conducted it out of their home.
There are various laws that you do have to follow. A family member can, in
many cases, fill out the death certificate him or herself in lieu of the
funeral director. The death certificate does need to be filed with the proper
authorities. Someone does need to come in, usually from the medical
establishment, to pronounce the death, to say that a death did occur. Various
papers need to be filed afterwards, but it can be done and it was done very
successfully by many of the families I interviewed for the book.
GROSS: Now, you also looked at something called memorial reef. Tell us what
these are and if they're like a new concept.
Mr. HARRIS: It is a new concept. It's a take on burial at sea, but it's a
new idea. This is where the ashes of the cremated remains of the deceased are
added to the concrete slurry that's poured into a mold that forms what looks
like an igloo that somebody has punched a bunch of holes into. Over a period
of a month, that concrete, what they call memorial reef ball, dries. It's put
on a boat. You go out with a boat and you drop it onto an established
artificial reef. When it sinks to the reef, it becomes part of the reef and
ends up serving as habitat for fish.
GROSS: And why is that considered environmentally correct to be dropping,
what, a concrete ball into a reef?
Mr. HARRIS: Yes. You know, what you're actually doing is you're augmenting
existing reef structure. And what's interesting, Terry, is you look at some
underwater videos of some of these pods or memorial reefs that have been
sitting on the floor for--the sandy sea floor for awhile, you'll see fish
darting in and out of these portholes. You'll see coral and anemone latching
on to the hard, nubby substrate of these reef balls. And they really do serve
as nurseries for fish. They create new habitat for fish.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Harris. He's the author
of the new book, "Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral
Industry to a Natural Way of Burial."
How did writing this book affect your thoughts on how you want to be buried
when you die? Or buried--I mean, not necessarily buried. I mean, what you
want done with your remains when you die.
Mr. HARRIS: That's a good question. You know, the first funeral I ever
witnessed was my mother's when I was 16 years old. My parents had divorced
and my grandfather was--I was living with my father, and my grandfather was
handling the funeral arrangements. And I'll never forget what it was like
going to the funeral home where my mother was laid out. My father--before we
walked into the funeral home, my father said, `Listen, I don't want you to go
in there. I don't want your last memory being of your mother of someone in a
box.' And so I never viewed my mother.
Contrary to what some people might think about the importance of actually
seeing a dead body at the time of death, I never did see my mother embalmed
and viewed and dead, and I don't feel I missed out on anything.
As for myself, it has made me think about what I would like. I'd always
assumed that I would be cremated, which is sort of a tradition on my father's
side of the family. But after visiting the woodland burial grounds or these
natural cemeteries that are cropping up in this country, there is something so
totally resonant about that dust-to-dust burial and a green place, using a
burial to preserve land and to aid its ecological restoration that has made me
really consider that as an option for myself.
GROSS: Now, your great-grandfather founded a cemetery, right?
Mr. HARRIS: That's right, mm-hmm. He founded White Haven Memorial Park in
Pittsford, New York.
GROSS: And, like, what kind of cemetery is it? Was it--is it a high-priced
cemetery? Is it...
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, what's interesting Terry, after writing this book and kind
of understanding a little bit about what my great-grandfather did, he was part
of the movement of people who moved away from the rural cemeteries that I have
been celebrating in this book. He was one of the first to establish what are
known as memorial parks, which are vast expanses of green with the headstones
set flush to the ground. In some ways they are, you know, they're green and
they're park-like, but they're not at all natural in the way that the rural
cemeteries were or as the natural cemeteries are today.
GROSS: And how did having a great-grandfather who cofounded a cemetery affect
your ideas about cemeteries when you were growing up? You know, some people
find cemeteries very spooky. Other people find them almost spiritual.
Mr. HARRIS: Well, it affected me in a couple of ways, mostly through my
father who worked on the cemetery grounds as a teenager, and he would
sometimes regale me with stories about what it was like to dig graves and to
actually collapse some of the grave sites that had wooden coffins in order to
allow the dirt to sink in and fill in the...(unintelligible).
But in another way, I do think that grave sites can be wonderful places to
visit and reconnect with family that you have known and family that you don't
know. And it can connect you to generations long gone by, gives you a place
to return to. And I think in that way, we would occasionally return to this
cemetery. And I have to say that it's still--despite it not being kind of the
natural cemetery that I myself would want to be laid to rest in--it still can
be a very moving place for me personally.
GROSS: Mark Harris, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. HARRIS: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Mark Harris is the author of the new book, "Grave Matters: A Journey
Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal talks about her movies,
including "SherryBaby" which comes out on DVD tomorrow
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
One of the performances our film critic David Edelstein considered to be among
the best of 2006 was in a movie that didn't play in many theaters, but it
comes out on DVD tomorrow. The movie is "SherryBaby," and my guest is the
film's star, Maggie Gyllenhaal. She also starred in "Secretary," "Happy
Endings," "World Trade Center" and "Stranger than Fiction." In the film
"Donnie Darko," she and her brother Jake Gyllenhaal played siblings. In
"SherryBaby," Gyllenhaal plays an emotionally troubled young woman named
Sherry, who's moving into a halfway house after three years in prison for
robbery. She'd stolen money to support her heroin habit. When Sherry gets
out, she wants to reconnect with her young daughter who has been living with
Sherry's brother and sister-in-law ever since Sherry was imprisoned. They
don't think that Sherry is ready yet to be a responsible parent. Everyone has
doubts about whether she can hold things together. Here she is with her
parole officer played by Giancarlo Esposito.
(Soundbite from movie "SherryBaby")
Ms. MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Sherry) Can I ask you about something now
or--this curfew thing? I just--I would like to spend the night at my family's
house, my brother's house. I haven't seen them for a long time.
Mr. GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As parole officer) I thought you had no problems
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (As Sherry) Yeah.
Mr. ESPOSITO: (As parole officer) Any unrecorded police contact will result
in the immediate violation of your parole, and I will violate you. You will
be returned to prison to start the remainder of your sentence plus any new
charges you may incur. Monday at 9 AM, you report to Mr. Monroe at 1138
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (As Sherry) Don't give me that.
Mr. ESPOSITO: (As parole officer) Are you trying to...(censored by
network)...me, Swanson, or are you here to successfully complete your parole?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (As Sherry) To successfully complete my parole, sir. I just
really--I'm missing my daughter. I've been tearing a long time.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: I asked Maggie Gyllenhaal what she did to prepare for the role of
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Laurie Collyer, who directed the movie, insisted that I go
to a bunch of halfway houses, and I spent about three weeks going to different
halfway houses in New York and Brooklyn and New Jersey. And, actually,
there's a women's prison on 21st, either 20th or 21st Street on the West Side
Highway. I live right by there. I never would have know that. A medium
security women's prison. And Laurie and I went there and showed her
documentary and, you know, talked for a few hours with some of the women who
are incarcerated there. And I got to know this one woman in particular who
had gotten her release from prison about two, three weeks before I met her and
went with her to meet her parole officer, you know, waited for two hours on
the street, went with her to her job training program. I spent a lot of time
with her also. But mostly I feel like just going to these halfway houses,
meeting a bunch of different women who are in very similar situations and not
researching so much as just sitting there all day on the couch with them, you
know, and smoking. And just being there all the time was really, I would say,
was preparation enough.
GROSS: Were you already a smoker or did you smoke because you were with them?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: I was a--like, I was an ex-smoker and thrilled to be able to
start smoking again, to be honest. And, actually, that was kind of, it was
very intense. Sherry smokes a lot of cigarettes, and I got really hungry for
cigarettes and started smoking a lot. And in the beginning when we would
shoot some scenes and I'd be smoking and smoking and smoking, there were times
I felt like I was going to pass out. And then I just started to really like
it, and then, you know, I don't smoke anymore and I haven't smoked for years.
But, you know, as often would happen with me, I would, you know, start smoking
again for a little stint and then feel horrible and stop.
GROSS: When your character Sherry gets out of prison and is living in the
halfway house but wants to reclaim the parenthood of her child who's living
with her brother and sister-in-law, the only asset she thinks she has in this
world, really, is her body, and she'll use it to help get a job. She'll use
it to--she'll use it in any way she can to get what she needs.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: I guess I'm interested in hearing what it was like to learn to use
your body in the way that this character does to get things.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Well, I would--I agree with you on one level that I do agree
that she feels that her body is an asset and is a major tool. But I don't
think she thinks that's the only tool she has. I think that she actually
believes, and I believe also, that she's incredibly smart and spiritual. And
when she uses her body, I think that what is actually involved is this kind of
reworking of the situation she's in to justify what she's doing. So, for
example, there's a scene where a job counselor asks her to have sex with him
in order to get the job she wants. Actually, no, in retrospect, he doesn't do
GROSS: She offers herself.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: She offers herself up.
GROSS: Yeah. She offers herself. She takes her blouse off and...
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, that's true.
GROSS: ...she kind of gives him the message.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. He doesn't have to do anything. But I think there's
a way to play that scene where she is a victim, which obviously with any kind
of objectivity she is. But I felt like the way that I could understand it was
to really sit there for a second as Sherry and think, `OK, how is this
ethical? How is this making me a better mother, a better professional woman,
a better person in the eyes of God? How is this really, really OK?' And I
think it takes a great, great mind to be able to turn something as hard and
horrible as what she does with that job counselor into something that she
believes that God and her daughter would understand.
GROSS: Was it hard for you to use your body in the way that she uses her body
to be that unself-conscious about it and that less-flaunting of it?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Well, again, while I was shooting it, it wasn't. I remember
shooting one of the sex scenes in the very beginning of the movie where she
sleeps with the guy who's the head of her halfway house, and we were shooting
it in New Jersey. It was like 2:00 in the morning. We were shooting in a
real basement of a house that hadn't been cleaned in like 15 years. And there
was this dirty table that we were supposed to be naked and having sex with
each other on. And I remember saying, you know, kind of jokingly but really
tough, you know, like, `Would any of you get naked on this table? Can we at
least put like a blanket down or something?' You know, that was kind of where
my anxiety went--I mean, I think rightly so. I don't think anyone would have
gotten naked on this table. But I got so tough about it. I got so kind
of--I'm completely fine with getting naked, but just not on this table, you
know, where really, I think...
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: ...I think--and what was really hard for me, actually, was
watching the scenes. And not so much because of the, you know, of being shy
about my body or something, but which was probably there also to be totally
honest. But also I think I just felt very exposed in those scenes
emotionally, you know. I mean, I think sex scene can be a real opportunity
for some real intense acting, because you think about sex in your life,
whether it's good sex or bad sex, there's a lot of communicating going on and
a lot of exposing of yourself. And I think I felt really especially exposed
in those scenes, not just physically, and I was scared to see them.
GROSS: Maybe that's in part because these aren't like, you know, loving
companionship kind of relationships.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Right.
GROSS: I mean, in some of the scenes, I mean, she's using somebody to get
what she wants. Even if she likes them, she's still using them, and they're
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Well, that's actually what Peter said to me, my fiance. I
came home from work one day, most of the time I was shooting this movie, I was
alone. I think he was working somewhere out of town. So, he was home for a
week or something, and I had shot one of those scenes, and I came home and,
even though like I said, on set, I was super tough. And I wasn't pretending
to be. I really felt fine because I think I was Sherry all day. And I think
Sherry thinks she feels fine, you know. And I came home and I remember
telling him, `I don't think I want to do sex scenes anymore. They really
don't make me feel good.' And he said, `I think it might have something to do
with the kind of sex scenes you've been doing,' you know. I think that's
GROSS: Yeah. Well, the characters that you've played--I mean, there was
"Secretary," which is a very unusual relationship, though it's, in it's own
way very nurturing sadomasochistic relationship.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, exactly. That, those sex scenes felt like lovely, you
know, those ones felt, I mean not all of them...
GROSS: Because they were so well-suited to each other.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. And they loved each other, and it was the way that
they felt, they expressed and felt love, and so it felt good.
GROSS: But in this movie, in "SherryBaby" and also your character in "Happy
Endings," a movie I really love, these characters' sexuality come both from
their strength but also from their insecurity and from their neediness.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Mm-hmm. I think that's true. But again, when I shot "Happy
Endings," it was the same thing. It was that same idea, `Could I find myself
sleeping with two men who happen to be father and son and lying to them? How
could I do that and justify it? How can it be good? How can it be ethical?'
you know. And so I kind of believed when I was shooting that movie that she
was almost like an angel. And I kind of believed that she was really helping
them, and she does really help them. You know, I mean, just, I had to find
the good in it.
GROSS: Have you ever been in a position where, to play a role, you found the
good in it and you've justified, you've rationalized the character's actions,
you see them as an angel instead of this really troubled, manipulative person,
and then like a couple of years later you sit down and you watch the movie,
and you think, `Wait a minute, this character really isn't an angel. They're
really troubled and manipulative.'
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Well, yes. I mean, that happens often when I watch the
movie even the first time, you know. It actually took me a little while with
Sherry. I believed so much in her. Even as a mother, you know, I believed
that her intentions are really, really good. And I shoot so many of the
scenes with, you know, me and my daughter in the movie, believing so intensely
that I was mothering her in a way that was going to be helpful to her that
when I went to see the movie and we did some Q&As afterward and people would
say, `She's just despicable and horrible and awful to this girl.' I couldn't
really understand that. I mean, but that's not totally true. I mean,
obviously I understand that she's really troubled in the movie. Ultimately,
it's about her even beginning to become a mother at all. But I'd played the
scene so fiercely from the angle of I believe in myself, that it was hard for
me to even hear that people found her so, you know, so hard to watch as a
GROSS: My guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her film "SherryBaby" comes out on DVD
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her films include "Secretary," "Happy
Endings," "World Trade Center," "Stranger than Fiction" and "SherryBaby" which
comes out on DVD tomorrow.
Well, what are the challenges of making an independent film like "SherryBaby"
with a screenwriter/director who has no track record, particularly playing a
role like you are where you're in this vulnerable position because you are,
you know, exposing, exposing yourself emotionally and physically in ways?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Well, I guess I learned moviemaking on a tiny movie, you
know, on tiny movies. And so I feel, actually, more comfortable with that
kind of schedule and that kind of--that kind of situation, you know, where
it's all fast, where there's not a lot of time, there's not a lot of sitting
around. We are constantly working all day. To me then the day flies by and I
have a lot of energy all day. And that's just sort of how I learned. So when
I've worked with bigger movies, I've had a lot of time off. It's been a
little harder for me actually. But in terms of, you know, working with Laurie
and with a first-time director, you know, it was two and a half years ago
almost, that we made this movie. And I think I didn't ask her some questions
that I wish I'd really asked her before we started it that now I certainly
GROSS: Like what?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Like what movies she liked, what actors she liked.
GROSS: You would have asked her this before working with her?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. I mean, just so at least I could say, `OK, this is
her sensibilities. This is how she's going into this.' I'm usually not--I
mean, basically, I say this because we had a lot of disagreements when we were
shooting, a lot. And we actually really fought, which is unusual for me and I
also think very unusual for her. And I love her, and I'm very proud of the
movie, and I'm really just--I think she did a fantastic job, and she's a
really good friend. But when we shot, we really fought. And I think we had
some fundamental differences about who Sherry was. I had a different idea who
she was, which, you know, after the first week of shooting, she came to me and
said, `I don't know what you're doing and I'm really worried about it.' And I
was like I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Like a week of
shooting on a five-week movie is a lot of work and a lot of really hard work.
And I just--it was really hard. And I think what it was that she had
originally expected was that she kept saying to me, she said, `I just, I wish
Sherry would be more street,' she said.
And I guess I felt really, really strongly that--of course, there are ways
where she puts on kind of being street. She's been in prison, for whatever
that means. I'm not really clear what that means. Just used her word. And,
you know, she's been in prison for three years, and she certainly had some
hard times. You know, the last time that she was not high or in prison, she
was 16. And I think she came out of prison feeling this fierce hopefulness
like `I'm just going to be the best mama you could possibly imagine and the
most professional woman. And a professional woman and a fantastic mama
doesn't mean you can't be sexy and hot, and, you know, and I'm smart and I
know what's up and I'm clean and I'm sorry for what I did, and I'm ready.'
And, you know, it's such a naive way of going into things, but I felt so
strongly that that's how it had to be. And it was very different than what
she imagined. And so it was hard at first. But she--actually, well, I think
we both sort of realized that the way that she was directing me was by
fighting with me, and she became, you know, like the world I was up against in
GROSS: So, you think resisting her gave you a genuine way of resisting
everybody else in the movie? Because you're basically fighting the whole
world in the movie.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Right, which is probably why on some level I was fighting
her at all, because ideally, if you have a disagreement with a director about,
you know, something as fundamental as what I described, you could have a
conversation about it, you know. You can talk to each other. I really wasn't
very open to that. And I think that was because of who I was playing all day.
Because also let me say, you know, I don't--I'm not the one who believes, you
know, the more tempestuous, the better like, `Let's have a really horrible
time,' and that will somehow lead to great work. I don't think that. I would
much rather have a collaborative, trusting, good relationship with the people
I'm working with.
GROSS: There's a scene that I really like in the movie that makes me very
uncomfortable because what you're doing is so wrong, you know. There's a big
family dinner and it's at your brother and sister-in-law's house, and they've
been taking care of your daughter. So, they're at the table and your father
who used to have an incestuous relationship with you is at the dinner, too,
with his wife. And so you're all sitting around the table and you decide you
want to sing to everybody. See, you stand up and you sing a song by the
Bangles, "Eternal Flame," and you kind of are staring at your daughter as you
sing it, as if the song is dedicated to her. But it's a very sexual song.
And so it's kind of inappropriate for your six-year-old daughter, and it's
kind of inappropriate with your father being there at the table, and he's kind
of squirming as you sing it. And all that said, I really like your singing.
And you also sang in a previous film, "Happy Endings." Maybe you could talk
just a little bit about that scene.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: It's funny I never even thought about it as a sexual song.
That's what I mean, like, I just thought, `It's a great song and I'm going to
sing it to my daughter,' you know. And it's true, it is. It's a very sexual
song. And in a way, in a way, I think if Sherry had been aware of that or
even if I had been aware of that, I just wasn't thinking that way. I don't
think Sherry would have sung it to her. I think it would have horrified her,
you know. But I think she's just thinking, `I want her to know how much I
love her' and actually probably more accurately, `I just want her to love me.'
GROSS: Now, you sing in "SherryBaby." You also sing in "Happy Endings." Like
I say, I like your voice a lot. And I'm wondering if you sang before making
these movies, if you were ever in a band or if you ever wanted to be.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Man, I would love to be in a band. But I actually think
that it would be an amazing thing to do. But, no, I was never in a band. I
was in the choir in high school. And, you know, I sang Madrigals and things
like that. But I--you know, I grew up singing, I guess. You know, my dad
played guitar and, you know, we would all sing together. At least my brother
and my dad and I, my mom, who also does singing really well, she doesn't think
she does. She doesn't sing very much. But I grew up, you know, with music
around and really liking singing and enjoying it. And I feel like there's
something kind of a little embarrassing or annoying or something about an
actress who sings.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: I don't know. Like, it feels like, you know, theater camp
or something, you know. And--but I loved singing in "Happy Endings" actually.
GROSS: Well, you were in a band in it. So it was perfectly appropriate for
you to be singing.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah. And Don, you know, Don Ruse and I, when we met to
talk about doing that movie, which I really desperately wanted to do and I met
him but I sort of acted like I wasn't sure. And I said, you know, the one
thing that's really--and this is actually true. This is kind of the way I
wanted to do that movie and probably the only way I wanted to do it was if all
the singing could be live, you know. I didn't want to record it beforehand
and then lip-synch it. I wanted to have the stakes of having to sing in front
of however many people are in the room, you know, help me through the scene.
And so that's what we did.
GROSS: My guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her film "SherryBaby" comes out on DVD
tomorrow. Here she is singing from the soundtrack of the film, "Happy
(Soundbite from "Happy Endings" by Maggie Gyllenhaal)
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: (Singing) "I get so excited just to see your face. For the
first time I have found my place. Never sing about this world so strange.
Used to be so easy to get myself through. I made it different, now I don't
know what I'm going to do. Everything about this feels so strange. And I'm
just hoping that you'll feel the same. But I can't wait for you to change.
No, I can't wait..."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Maggie Gyllenhaal from the soundtrack of "Happy Endings."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her films include "Secretary," "Happy
Endings," "World Trade Center," Stranger than Fiction" and "SherryBaby" which
comes out on DVD tomorrow.
You know, we were talking a few minutes ago about how you've used your
sexuality in the movie, "SherryBaby," and also in the film, "Happy Endings."
You recently gave birth to a daughter, and I was just--you know, I couldn't
help but wonder like when you were pregnant, you must have felt so much more
kind of protective of your body and so much more private about it?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: It must have been such a big difference, you know, going from that
private feeling of pregnancy from that kind of, you know, public display that
you have to do in certain roles.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: I did feel much more protective of my body when I was
pregnant because I, in a way, wasn't just mine. You know, it was--I was
sharing it with somebody. And, you know, I still feel fiercely protective of
her privacy, you know, especially because, you know, really surprisingly, I
really didn't expect this at all. You know, when I was in labor and then she
was born, there were 30 paparazzi outside our apartment in New York, and I
can't even say how hard that was for us. I mean, I understand that we--our
family is very lucky in so many ways, but those were really surprisingly--it
was surprisingly that it happened at all. And then it was surprising how
invaded I felt and how scary it was.
GROSS: Yeah. I can imagine. You had played somebody pregnant in "World
Trade Center," the September 11th movie that Oliver Stone made.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah.
GROSS: And you played the wife of one of the men who's trapped under the
World Trade Center, and so you had, I'm sure, a prosthetic belly for that.
And you hadn't yet been pregnant when you played that role. Were you
surprised about what it was like to actually be pregnant vs. how you played
it? Was it different from what you imagined?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: I'm really glad that somebody said to me, `Look, you're five
and a half months pregnant in this movie, you can pretty much, you can do
everything,' you know. You're not going to be waddling around or struggling
to get out of a chair. You're going to be fine at five and a half months.
And so I almost ignored the physical aspect of the pregnancy because already
there was this funny prosthetic thing, not in my life, but in the movie.
There was this funny bump on me, and I just kind of tried to do everything as
I normally would. And then actually being pregnant, yeah, it's really
different than I could have ever imagined, ever. And same with giving birth
and with being a mother. I mean, it's completely, completely blown my mind.
GROSS: Well, Maggie Gyllenhaal, really good to talk with you again. Thank
you so much.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Sure. Thanks.
GROSS: Maggie Gyllenhaal's movie, "SherryBaby," comes out on DVD tomorrow.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.